Oregon law requires most government bodies — everything from counties to cemetery districts — to file audit reports each year with the Secretary of State’s Office. Cities and counties that fail to get their reports done on time face the prospect of having the state withhold 10 percent of the money it sends them until the paperwork is complete.

There’s good reason for that. Municipalities spend taxpayers’ money, and taxpayers need to know that their dollars are being used for legitimate purposes.

While withholding funds may well light a fire under noncompliant communities, it may not be the best way to push them to get the auditing job done.

The problem is that the cities and counties that missed or ignored deadlines are generally not places like Multnomah County or the city of Bend. Rather, they are communities like Chiloquin, with fewer than 1,000 residents, and counties like Baker, with just over 16,000 residents. Small, in other words, in population if not area.

There is no question that the audits matter. In 2002 former Deschutes County Sheriff Greg Brown pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $575,000 from his office and from the much smaller Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire Protection District, where he served on the governing board. The thefts were discovered after an audit raised questions about the sheriff’s office books.

Size is no excuse when it comes to obeying the law. It can, though, make compliance more difficult. Leaders of small government bodies and in sparsely populated counties may find the state’s auditing requirements difficult to meet, confusing and expensive.

Despite the 2015 law providing the possibility that state money can be withheld, some smaller towns and counties continue to have problems complying with audit requirements year after year. The goal is to properly audit the spending of taxpayer money. It may well be that the Oregon Legislature should consider adding another more positive tool, one that offers help rather than a smack on the head.

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