The county controller’s role in county government, part 1

County controller responsibilities are similar to those of an administrator, with specific differences specified in state law.

A county controller is one of the several options for counties seeking an administrative leader. Previous Michigan State University Extension articles have been written that address the duties of an administrative officer, and more specifically the role of a county administrator or coordinator. The county controller position was created in statute with specific responsibilities, in addition to those that a county commission may add. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus talks about the responsibilities and a controversy about those responsibilities that was settled in court, in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government. The book is a publication of Michigan State University and is currently being updated by MSU faculty.

“The dispute over the role of county controller, mentioned earlier, resulted in part from the way the county controller statute spells out the responsibilities of this office. According to MCL 46.13b, the controller is the ‘chief accounting officer of the county having charge and supervision of the accounts and accounting over every office, officer, and department of the county, the whole or any part of the expense of which is borne by the county.’ The law states, for example, that the controller shall see that a system of accounting is installed in every office and kept properly. Moreover, the controller may prescribe other measures so that the books of the county properly reflect the transactions of the county and its agencies. And the law gives the controller the responsibility to examine the books on a regular basis.

“So even though county controllers are responsible within state guidelines for prescribing and designing the accounting procedures and records of the county, they are not entitled to take charge of the actual detailed recordkeeping itself unless; in keeping with the Supreme Court’s decision in an Ottawa County case, the board of commissioners so directs. The county controller statute, however, states that they are to keep a general ledger setting up control accounts that show the assets and liabilities of the county.

“The controller act also assigns other duties to the office of controller. It directs the officer to take charge of the purchasing function for the county and states that the controller is responsible for the condition and maintenance of county buildings and grounds including the county jail.

“This statute ends with a provision directing the county controller to perform such other duties as the board directs. Although this instruction is broad in scope, it need not cause difficulties as long as one remembers that the board cannot delegate to the controller any matter that the board itself does not have responsibilities for. Even though there are many functions that a board may not assign to a controller, enough remain to make the controller position, one of significance in the counties that have appointed a person to this position. One study of Michigan county administrators listed 14 functions for which at least some controllers had general administrative responsibility of. These included accounting and auditing, data processing, grants administration, personnel, planning, purchasing, properties management, and animal control.”

Watch for future MSU Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, and extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The book is being continually updated so information and statutory notations are current. The fifth edition is expected early winter 2016/2017.

Learn more about the county controller’s relationship to the board and more in part 2.

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