MAHONING COUNTY Auditor proposes new panel

The committee would be nonpolitical and meet quarterly.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Auditor George Tablack has recommended creation of a special audit committee that would help oversee the county's financial condition.
County commissioners would have to authorize the audit panel.
The committee, which would be composed primarily of volunteer, private-sector citizens with backgrounds in finance and accounting, also would suggest internal controls for more effective county government.
Tablack is convinced that such a committee would put forth solid information the public could see and understand to determine whether a sales tax is needed.
Voters defeated renewal of a half-percent sales tax, which expired Dec. 31, twice last year. That means the county no longer will get between $13 million and $14 million it brought in each year. A second half-percent sales tax expires in 2007.
Officeholders have predicted layoffs this year because of the revenue cut.
Credibility dilemma
"With as many times as the sales tax has been repealed or voted down, it is no mystery that we have a have a credibility problem" in Mahoning County, Tablack said.
"The audit committees that serve in the private sector are meant to show credibility with shareholders," and Tablack believes such a committee can show that same credibility with county residents, who are county government's shareholders.
"For at least five years, the Ohio auditor's office and the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada have recommended that public institutions establish an audit committee," Tablack said.
Citizen committee
The commissioners, auditor and prosecutor would serve on the committee, but the majority would be private citizens.
The committee could include attorneys and bankers or other individuals who are knowledgeable about county operations and accounting procedures.
"We are going to do more research with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio to see what other counties have established [an audit committee]," Tablack said.
"It is high time we get skilled people to serve on the committee to meet on a quarterly basis -- that's similar to the private sector -- and that they should review our audit reports and perhaps employ some internal auditing mechanism."
Tablack said county officials should not wait for their most vocal critics to expose "whatever blemishes you have in your institution and your operational procedures."
The majority of the committee must be made up of nonpoliticians, he said.
"It is time that active participation of learned citizens, who are not compensated, be part of this [financial oversight] process. And I think it will be one positive step to show we are willing to police ourselves."
Addressing disparities
The committee's review would be meant to be a constructive, ongoing evaluation of how the county manages its business. And periodically, the committee will be asked to review every part of county government to correct inequities.
Tablack said one thing affecting county employees' morale is the disparity in wages. Some county employees paid from the same general fund receive less than others doing comparable work.
Tablack said his employees will receive no pay raises for a third consecutive year, and his office, like some other county departments, has less manpower to do the job.
Faith in finances
Commissioner John McNally IV, starting his second week on the job, said he likes Tablack's plan.
"Anyway to educate the public more about county finances is a good idea," McNally said.
Commissioner Anthony Traficanti, also starting his second week in office, said the idea is definitely worth exploring.
He wants Tablack to check out other counties to see if a private audit committee is in place, see what kind of impact the committee has on that county, and see "if this is something Mahoning County should be doing."
"I am all for restoring faith in county government," Traficanti said.

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