Four months ago, we let it be known in this space that the light at the end of the city of Niles’ dark fiscal tunnel was real.
Indeed, we focused our attention on the following comment from Mayor Thomas Scarnecchia: “We’re on the road to recovery.”
Now, however, we aren’t so sure.
Last week, Niles residents learned that because the treasurer’s office is down to one employee, city government would not be able to reconcile financial statements with bank records for several months.
In other words, the tunnel seems to have collapsed.
Given that one or more employees need to be trained to conduct a primary function of the treasurer’s office, we urge Ohio Auditor David Yost to get involved.
Yost has taken a particular interest in what’s going on in Niles, not only because the city has been under state-declared fiscal emergency for three years and four months, but also because his office has uncovered alleged criminal conduct by former Mayor Ralph Infante and others.
We are confident that Yost, a Republican running for Ohio attorney general this year, will be able to find someone on his staff to fill the void. If not a staff member, then perhaps a retired expert in government financing who does not need a learning curve.
The problem in Niles arose when Treasurer Janet Rizer-Jones resigned, leaving the office with a single employee.
The state-mandated Financial Planning and Supervision Commission, which has controlled the city’s finances since the declaration of emergency, talked about the disruption last week.
State-appointed fiscal supervisors told commission members that the only employee trained in reconciliation transferred to another department, and the one left in the treasurer’s office isn’t able to perform the duties.
Commission Chairman Quentin Potter pointed out that reconciliation is a “fundamental item” and places Niles at risk of noncompliance with its fiscal-emergency recovery plan.
“This is a critical function that has to be taken care of,” Potter said. “We can’t have discussions about release until this happens.”
The “release” the chairman is talking about is the lifting of fiscal emergency by Yost. State law details the requirements that must be met in order for the financial shackles to be removed, including the development of annual balanced budgets for five years.
According to fiscal supervisors Tim Lintner and Nita Hendryx, Niles’ January records have not been reconciled, and the problem is likely to continue for several months even after training is completed.
That’s unacceptable. Yost should meet with Potter, Lintner and Hendryx to determine how to rebuild the tunnel that was bathed in light in October.
When Mayor Scarnecchia, who defeated Infante in the 2015 mayoral election, announced in October that the city was on the “road to recovery,” the statement was prompted by a report from Lintner .
“It’s all wonderful news,” the fiscal supervisor said. “The city has made tremendous strides in rectifying cash balances, [and] no department in the general fund exceeded its appropriation.”
Lintner made note of the fact that the water fund, which had started the year with a deficit of almost $800,000, now has a balance of more than $214,000.
He characterized the progress as “an amazing turnaround.”
It is, therefore, understandable why last week’s announcement about the treasurer’s office is so devastating to Niles residents who have been waiting for fiscal emergency to be lifted.
The elected position of city treasurer is part-time, and Scarnecchia, who has been interviewing candidates to replace Rizer-Jones, plans to announce his appointment today. The Trumbull County Democratic Central Committee must approve the appointment. The job pays $7,500 a year.
In explaining her decision to resign, Rizer-Jones said that expecting a treasurer to meet all the demands of the office on a limited basis is unrealistic.
“It’s a part-time job requiring more than full-time hours … they really need to look into that. Unfortunately, I have other obligations,” she said.
Rizer-Jones was appointed by the mayor in June 2016 and approved by the party’s central committee. She replaced Robert Swauger, who resigned after the discovery of income-tax checks that had remained in unopened boxes for several months.
In looking over the situation in Niles, Yost should delve into the broader issue of the treasurer’s position and whether it should be full time.
For now, however, the city of Niles needs a helping hand from the state.