Auditors criticize county management

Published 10:46 am Wednesday, January 14, 2009

While the 2007 Lawrence County financial audit contained no surprises or findings for recovery (demands to pay back misspent money, for instance), a separate management letter also issued by the Ohio Auditor’s Office took aim at some weaknesses in courthouse management and discussed the money paid to former board of elections director Mary Wipert.

The audit was released to the public Tuesday morning.

The letter, prepared by the Balestra, Harr and Scherer, certified public accounting firm of Piketon, lists seven issues with which the accountants had concerns. It also includes suggestions for resolving these issues.

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“These comments reflect matters that, while in our opinion do not represent material instances of noncompliance or significant deficiencies in internal control structure conditions, we believe represent matters for which improvements in compliance or internal controls or operational efficiencies might be achieved,” the letter stated. “Due to the limited nature of our audit, we have not fully assessed the cost-benefit relationship of implementing the recommendations suggested below. However, these comments reflect our continuing desire to assist your government.”

One of the concerns dealt with the payments of salary and benefits to former board of election director Mary Wipert, who was fired in a 3-1 vote by the elections board in February 2007.

The termination, after more than 20 years of service, touched off a public debate about why she had been fired.

At the time, Wipert said she did not know why she was fired; then-board member Dick Myers, who made the move to fire her, would not say what prompted him to take this action.

In the management letter, accountants said they queried board members about the post-termination salary and benefits.

“When we questioned the board members and the county prosecutor as to the board’s intent on Ms. Wipert’s contract at the Feb. 28, 2007 meeting, there was no agreement as to whether the board intended to terminate Ms. Wipert or intended to allow to her to continue to receive pay,” the letter stated.

“We recommend the minutes of the board of election meetings contain a complete and accurate record of the proceedings and actions of the board, specifically personnel issues. We also recommend the board of elections review the minute record to ensure the minutes are complete and accurate. This review should be done at the next month’s meeting and be documented in the minutes. We also recommend the board consult with their legal counsel regarding all future employment matters.”

The accountants advised that county entities keep accurate and complete minutes of all public meetings.

When contacted at her home this morning, Wipert said she had no comment on the situation and wished to put the matter behind her, as this has been painful for her.

Board member Robert Griffith said he didn’t think the minutes of the meeting would be accurate or complete because Wipert had been taking the minutes of the meeting when Meyers made the move to fire her.

Griffith said, to his knowledge, she was given permission to “draw out what money she had coming by regular payroll, in my opinion.”

He suggested speaking with board chairman Karen Matney Simmons. Simmons was contacted at work this morning but was not immediately available for comment.

The accountants expressed concerns about the handling of county money as well.

The letter stated the sheriff’s office should make deposits in a timely manner — preferably one day after intake of cash, but no later than three days.

The accountants suggested the county commission establish a maximum amount of money that can be obtained by so-called blanket certificates.

“Ohio Rev. Code Section 5705.41(D) states that fiscal officers may prepare so-called ‘blanket’ certificates for a certain sum of money not in excess of an amount established by resolution or ordinance adopted by a majority of the members of the legislative authority against any specific line item account over a period not running beyond the end of the current fiscal year. The blanket certificates may, but need not, be limited to a specific vendor. Only one blanket certificate may be outstanding at one particular time for any one particular line item appropriation, the accountants stated in the management letter.

Another issue cited in the letter pertained to interest earned on The Office of Housing and Community Partnership (OHCP) grants.

The rules require such grant monies to be put in a non-interest bearing account.

If the grant funds are put in an interest bearing account, interest of $100 or more is to be passed on to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development on a quarterly basis and credit any interest to the grant.

“The county deposited federal funds in interest bearing accounts, but did not credit the grant fund(s) with any interest generated by the deposits,” Accountants noted. “During 2007, the County’s Small Cities Community Development Block Grants potentially earned interest in excess of $100. The interest was not remitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.”

Another of the concerns dealt with transferring monies from one account to another at the end of the year to cover projected deficits.

State law stipulates that monies put into a particular funds must be used for that purpose only.

“The following funds have negative fund balances at December 31, 2007: Delinquent Tax, Undivided Local Government and New Auto for $500, $62,026 and $61,011 respectively. The County failed to properly advance money from the General fund to cover fund deficits throughout the year and at fiscal year end. The county should not disburse from any fund until there are available funds to cover the expenditure and should advance monies to the fund if it is apparent that the fund will have a negative fund balance,” the letter stated.

The letter also rapped the county commission for creating accounts not approved by the state auditor before hand.

Accountants also said the clerk of courts office needs to make changes as it pertains to unclaimed funds.

“Ohio Rev. Code Section 2335.34 and 2335.35 states that on the first Monday of January, the clerk of each common pleas court clerk, court of appeals clerk, probate judge clerk, sheriff shall make two certified lists of unclaimed fees and costs outstanding for one year, and post the list in her/his office and the courthouse for 30 days.”

“[RC 2335.34] After the forementioned 30 day period, the clerk or sheriff must pay the money to the county treasury. Each such officer shall indicate in her/his cashbook and docket the disposition of each unclaimed item. [RC 2335.35] The Clerk of Courts Legal Department did not follow procedures described in the above ORC requirements governing unclaimed costs and fees,” accountants noted in their management letter.

“The Clerk of Courts should post a list of unclaimed costs and fees as required by Ohio Revised Code, maintain record of such unclaimed costs and fees in cashbook and docket and pay money to the county treasury after the 30 day period.”

In addition to minute keeping changes in the board of elections, other suggestions for improvement mentioned in the letter:

— The clerk of courts should investigate whether checks issued more than six months ago can be collected. “We found checks that were older than six months and still outstanding. This could result in a misstatement of cash if these checks have little chance of clearing in the future. We recommend that outstanding checks that are older than six months be investigated to determine whether to void and reissue the amounts or deposit the amounts to an unclaimed monies fund.”

Another suggestion is that the clerk of courts ask National City Bank to provide corresponding fronts and back images of all checks deposited.

“The clerk of courts title department does not receive copies of cancelled checks from National City Bank and therefore doe not maintain sufficient evidential matter as required by Auditor of State Bulletin previously mentioned. The clerk of courts should contact National City Bank and request that the Title Department be provided with an electronic image of the front and back side of all cancelled checks,” the letter stated.

— The county should have a written policy on travel reimbursement to make sure all travel costs meet the same county criteria.

— The Lawrence County Municipal Court should have bank reconciliations approved by two people, a move that would reduce the possibility of mistakes.

The letter did not note if any mistakes had been made as a result of this oversight.