Missing tax dollars in Fresno County

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- An Action News public records request revealed the losses are huge. Big enough that it took more than 100 pages to list as much as the county can count.

It is a 6,000-square mile county so there's plenty of space for things to go missing, but the biggest chunk of it disappears in east central Fresno at the Department of Social Services.

The losses total more than $4 million over the last five years in Calworks, Calfresh and in-home supportive services.

"It's big and it's too big to us because these are numbers where in our determination of what benefit an individual is eligible for, there was an error in the process," said Delfino Neira, Fresno County DSS Director.

Some of the losses are big. Some are just a few bucks. Some of it is innocent mistakes, some of it is fraud, and some is embezzlement by county employees. None of it is acceptable to Neira. He says the embezzlers are prosecuted, the fraud is eventually detected, and the mistakes are corrected.

In many cases, the county acts like a collection agency trying to get its money back. They can't seize property, but they can stake a claim to tax returns. "If there was a different way we could recoup the money, we probably would've been doing that already. We're doing everything we're legally allowed to do," Neira explains.

With more than 400-thousand clients receiving almost $4.5 billion in benefits over the last five years, the loss rate is really less than one-tenth of 1-percent.

Of course, other county departments lose property and cash as well. For example, the sheriff's office tells me 19 pieces of sensitive equipment disappeared over the last five years, most of it stolen. But there's no central command to watch over the county's property and cash. Each department audits itself.

So thumbing through the public records Action News received was almost as complicated as keeping it all safe. But Auditor-Controller Vicki Crow says taxpayers should know the system usually works. "I think that they should be pretty comfortable with the controls and we certainly do react when we have an incident."

County vehicles also sustained more than $900,000 in damage over the five-year time frame. Taxpayer advocates say some losses are expected, but a million dollars a year seems excessive. "They don't expect perfection, but they do expect when there are problems uncovered that there ought to be reasonable steps taken to deal with it," said Coupal.

At DSS, Neira believes adding more than 100 benefit workers in the last year or so means mistakes are less common, cheating is uncovered faster, and tax losses are already trending in the right direction.

Action news also reached out to some of the county supervisors for comment, but those who returned our messages referred us to individual department heads -- including the two people we interviewed.
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