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Don't sugarcoat findings of utility payments probe



Published: Mon, April 21, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



While we agree that the ultimate goal of an independent review of Mahoning County's procedures for paying utility bills should be to develop solutions to the problems of late fees and shut-off notices, the following question must also be answered: Who's to blame?

The taxpayers of the county have a right to know which officeholder or officeholders dropped the ball. Government not paying a bill by its due date is irresponsible under any circumstances. But when such non-payment appears to be standard operating procedure, then the identity of the public official is pertinent.

Cohen & amp; Co., which performs annual audits of Mahoning County government for the state, has been asked by Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery to review the county's method of paying utility bills. The accounting firms has local offices in Youngstown and Warren.

"We have asked Cohen & amp; Co. to examine the present bill payment operation in the county and to work with county management officials to identify potential means for improving the process," Montgomery said in a letter to Mark Belinky, president of the Democrats of the 17th and 6th Districts, a local grass-roots political organization.

But here's why we believe the finger of blame must be pointed: An investigation last month by The Vindicator revealed that the county paid more than $10,000 in late fees to companies in a 14-month period and received numerous shut-off notices to several vital county operations.

Systemic breakdowns

As we said in an editorial after the newspaper's findings were published, "It appears that some of the late fees were accrued because of systemic breakdowns -- bills that have to pass through too many hands before payment is made. But even then, some departments do a better job than others in getting their bills through the system. That would indicate that somebody along the line isn't giving the bills the immediate attention they require. When people handling utility bills become lackadaisical, the county ends up wasting money."

Paying late fees is a waste of public dollars.

We applaud the state auditor for giving this situation the special attention it deserves, and we have every confidence in Cohen & amp; Co. doing a thorough job of identifying the problem and the individuals responsible, and then proposing changes in the way utility bills are paid.

It must be noted that Mahoning County government is trying to develop a new system that will encompass the various departments and officeholders responsible for incurring the bills, the commissioners office, which must authorize payment, and the auditor's office, which must make out the check or, possibly, make an electronic transfer.

But coming up with a fail-safe system is not as easy as it sounds, which is why Cohen & amp; Co.'s involvement is timely and necessary.

The company deserves the full cooperation of all officeholders and other government employees and must be provided with all records and other documentation that could shed light on the extent of the problem.

Indeed, seeing as how Cohen & amp; Co. has handled the county's state audits for several years, we wonder if officials were aware of the late fees being charged by utility companies and of the fact that shut-off notices had been received for some government operations.




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