Niles audit is due soon

NILES – Following Wednesday’s Niles City Council meeting, representatives from state auditor Dave Yost’s office presented council and Mayor Ralph Infante with what was reportedly their final findings in the city’s performance auditor.

Before going into a private session, Infante told the Tribune Chronicle that a public release of the state’s findings could be coming within the next 10 days.

An auditor’s office representative, who refused to give his name, refused to allow reporters to stay for the presentation. He cited law that states the audit is not public until officially released by the auditor’s office.

The state audit, launched in early 2013, has been digging into every aspect of the city’s financial performance, as well as its record-keeping to find ways to eliminate inefficiencies and get a city with a rapidly shrinking general fund and major budget shortfalls back into the black.

In related news, council approved an ordinance entering into an agreement with Huntington National Bank for remote check deposits, as well as a “vault” service to secure money that comes in and out of the city’s treasury office.

The added safety measures in the wake of former treasurer’s clerk Phyllis Wilson’s indictment on an accusation that she stole $142,272, dating back to January 2009, during her time as a clerk. Wilson’s duties included the depositing of checks and cash paid into the city.

“What will happen is the Huntington is giving us a free machine to read checks so my clerk will not have to go to the bank anymore,” Niles Treasurer Bob Swauger said. “Also, we will get a vault that any cash brought up to the office and deposited will be placed into this vault, a receipt will be printed out and then once or twice a week, an armored car service will come and empty the cash out.”

In anticipation of expected findings from the audit, council approved Wednesday an ordinance that will bring the city’s auditor’s and treasurer’s departments’ record-keeping into the digital age.

Council approved a “proposal most favorable to the city” by Software Solutions of Lebanon, and will enter into a contract with the company to provide new accounting software for the two city departments.

Until now, both the auditor’s and treasurer’s departments in Niles had operated completely with paper ledgers, a practice that Yost’s office advised was inadequate during its audit of the city’s financial practices.

John Merlo, 2nd Ward councilman and head of council’s technology committee, estimated that the total bid came in at roughly $162,000, although Merlo advised that the city will not pay that entire fee immediately.

During council, service director Neal Buccino noted the company will work with the two officers, as well as the city’s IT department to implement a staggered approach to the installation of the entire system.

Also, in 2013, council entered into a contract with MWH Americas Inc., a Cleveland-based consulting and engineering firm, to perform an analysis of the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The issue for the city was its management of pollutant loads discharged into the Mahoning River, as well as general improvements to the plant.

In order to pay for the recommended changes, council passed an ordinance Wednesday authorizing the mayor to take a loan in the amount of $2.63 million from the Ohio Water Development Authority. The loan will be used to cover the cost of engineering fees for the project.

The interest rate of the loan from OWDA is 3.4 percent, according to council.

Ed McCormick, 4th Ward councilman, said that the ordinance needed to be passed as the city had entered into a contact and was obligated to pay the bill.

“We had a signed contract and we had to decide how to pay for it, and I believe this loan is our best option,” McCormick said. “With the advise of those involved, I think we need to go this way. It’s not a fact of arguing about (how big the loan is), it’s about arguing how we’re going to pay for (the contract).

“The contract has already been established, and we have an obligation to pay for that contract.”