Liberty making comeback

LIBERTY – Despite a report by the State Auditor’s Office calling into question the ability of the township to continue maintaining itself, officials say recent efforts have already fixed many of the problems cited.

Administrator Pat Ungaro called the report an “exaggeration,” pointing out that the current trustees were not even in office during the years audited by the state, fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

“We had $800,000 in bank debt at one time,” Ungaro said. “When these trustees came in, they cleaned up all of that debt. Every fund is in the black now because of downsizing and other things.”

State Auditor David Yost released the report in April, often using harsh language to describe the fiscal situation in the township.

One passage reads, “… the Township has suffered recurring losses from operations and has a general fund balance deficit that raises substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”

In particular, the audit focuses on a transfer of money from the police and fire funds into the general fund to pay for 911 service. According to the auditor, borrowing from those department to pay for the service is not allowed.

Brittany Halpin, public information officer for the state auditor, called the situation in Liberty “serious” during an interview last week.

“Our office is working with the township and our local government services section will be in touch about getting their situation in order,” Halpin said. “The audit speaks for itself and, yes, we consider it fairly serious.”

Ungaro countered that the 911 service which was causing many of the accounting problems several years ago is no longer being run by the township. Township trustees voted unanimously in April 2012 to transfer the 911 service to the Trumbull County dispatch center in Howland.

“We’ve saved $250,000 a year by doing away with the 911,” Ungaro said. “We were paying all of that money to try to sustain it. That was one of the major problems that has been addressed.”

In addition, the report notes another example of forbidden accounting practices, when township officials took money from the fire fund to pay police salaries four years ago.

Ungaro said the township had no other option outside of laying off the entire police department, and the money is still in the process of being paid back.

“The law says you have to pay back the money in one year if you transfer like that,” Ungaro said. “We couldn’t take it back in one year. We didn’t have it. We would have lost everybody in the department. I can’t blame the trustees at that time for that.”

Officials said the once $250,000 owed to the fire department is down to $25,000 and they plan to make the final payment later this year.

Ungaro said the accounting practices, while technically forbidden by state law, were mandatory to sustain the departments and previous auditors were always aware of the transfers. Yost became auditor in November 2010.

“Every previous auditor was aware of the situation in Liberty,” Ungaro said. “We had meetings with them and kept them in the loop. They were totally aware of it and they understood our dilemma.”

To be sure, Trustee Jodi Stoyak said the township plans to work with the state to rectify any issues that may remain in accounting practices.

“A lot of these things are book keeping problems,” Stoyak said. “They aren’t real difficult problems to fix. We will be addressing these issues publicly at special meetings in the future.”

Still, Ungaro applauded the work of the current trustees – Stoyak, Stan Nudell and Jason Rubin – for their work in extinguishing debt and putting all funds in the black.

“Considering what these trustees accomplished, they should get a resolution for doing such a great job as far as I’m concerned,” Ungaro said. “We could go back five years ago and talk about the issues then, but I can’t understand the strong language (in the audit).”

Recently, the township secured $70,000 in matching funds for a $250,000 grant on a resurfacing project set to fix roads on Murray Hill and Shady Road.

“If we were broke, we wouldn’t be able to do that,” Ungaro said. “Like I said, I feel 90 percent of the problems in that audit have already been addressed and I feel confident in making that statement.”

Liberty achieved putting funds back on the right side of the ledger by cutting many of the township’s departments. Ungaro said in the last 10 years the road department has gone from 12 employees to five, while the police roster is down eight employees. The administration has gone from five employees to three.

“We are downsizing and we have a hiring freeze,” Ungaro said. “Also, I’m cutting my pay in half and it’s already down 30 percent right now. I decided to do that to help put more money back into the general fund.”

In addition to eliminating debts from previous administrations, the township has also suffered from state cuts in estate tax and property taxes.

“We feel like they want to do away with townships altogether,” Ungaro said. “All they talk about is consolidations in all government.”

Stoyak agreed with Ungaro’s assessment of the state’s role in cutting funds.

“Gov. (John) Kasich and his rainy day fund is bursting with cash,” Stoyak said. “Meanwhile, he’s restricted cash to local governments, whether you are talking about the estate tax or the personal property tax. We have done remarkably well considering those cuts.”