State Fails to Report Accounts Receivable; without Figures, There's No Way to Know How Well Government Is Being Run

Article excerpt

Byline: Walter C. Jones

ATLANTA Trying to discover how much is owed to the state government and the effectiveness of its efforts at collections isn't a simple process.

Inquiries to a dozen or so agencies led to more questions than answers.

While many government services are either delivered at no charge or only on a cash basis, there are loans, fines and certain regulatory fees that are assessed essentially on credit. Whether those balances are rising, falling or staying in line with comparable governments could shed light on the government's health and how well it's being run.

Nearly every business keeps a running tally known as accounts receivable of money owed to it in the next 12 months. It's a basic accounting tool used by managers and investors, according to Larry Walther, head of the School of Accountancy at Utah State University.

"By themselves, these numbers mean little. But, when compared to industry trends and prior years, they will reveal important signals about how well receivables are being managed," he wrote in the Principles of Accounting textbook.

Taxpayers wanting to compare state agencies' management are likely to meet challenges. The information isn't online or contained in financial reports presented at the monthly meetings of the boards overseeing agencies.

The deacons of a church of 300 members may see printouts of parishioners' pledges that are behind, but no similar information is a routine feature of the boards supervising agencies like the Department of Natural Resources, Transportation Department or the Department of Human Services.

Review of accounts receivable isn't just for comparing with peer groups but also a vital internal measure for management, according to Walther.

"In addition, the calculations may provide an 'early warning' sign of potential problems in receivables management and rising bad-debt risks," he wrote. "Analysts carefully monitor the days-outstanding numbers for signs of weakening business conditions."

Requests from the Times-Union for the figures by Thursday were mostly met with either no data by Friday or explanations of why it isn't regularly compiled.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Division spokesman Kevin Chambers replied that no single accounts-receivable total is maintained, although the division administers 51 types of fees. …