Lawrence leaders promise work on finances

Published 10:24 am Friday, August 21, 2009

LAWRENCE COUNTY — The grass is really greener on this side.

That was the message Lawrence County Commissioners had Thursday when comparing this county’s financial picture with that of neighboring Scioto County. The Ohio Auditor’s Office this week declared Scioto County in a state of fiscal emergency, citing a negative combined fund balance of $3.5 million.

Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens said, by contrast, Lawrence County right now has $900,000 cash on hand in its general fund.

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“We’re not flush with cash like I’d like for us to be but we’re staying in the positive on cash,” Stephens said.

He said one of the problem areas for Scioto County was its debt load— several million dollars versus Lawrence County’s roughly half million dollars.

One problem area for Lawrence County, however, is a stack of unpaid debts for various goods and services, everything from fuel for county vehicles to utilities.

Stephens said the county has $554,000 in encumbered debts (money officeholders have put a claim on to pay anticipated invoices), plus payroll to meet. A $200,000-plus bill for worker’s compensation will be due within the next several weeks. Some previous suggestions put the county’s debt at as much as $800,000. There was also some discussion previously that some officeholders were not forwarding bills for payment knowing the county was short on cash. But commissioners said they didn’t think that was a problem anymore.

“It’s been quite a while since a person had bills they didn’t bring up,” Commissioner Doug Malone said.

Commissioner Les Boggs said one of his most important objectives is to be able to pay down the stack of outstanding bills and to pay them in a more timely fashion in the future — some debts have been six, eight or even nine months waiting.

“I’d be thrilled to be 45, 60 days,” Boggs said.

“Will you be in the black at the end of the year?” one person who attended the commission meeting wanted to know.

The county received $552,000 this week in monthly sales taxes disbursement from the state and is waiting on its share of second-half property taxes. While the tax deadline was July 17, the county’s books are still unreconciled. According to information from the Lawrence County Auditor’s Office, Manatron, Inc., the outfit that handles the computer end of the financial reconciliation, alerted county officials recently that the county treasurer’s office certified $2,029.96 that is out of place. When contacted Thursday, Treasurer Stephen Dale Burcham said he checked with Manatron executives and the problem appears to be that the company’s software does not recognize $2,029.96 in future tax payments— payments made in advance for future tax periods. Burcham said he did not know how long it would be before the problem is fixed.

While it may not sound like a huge amount, it slowing the bill-paying process. Until the two sides are in agreement on money taken in and where it came from, the money should not be spent. Most of the money collected from property taxes is forwarded to the county’s public school districts; that has yet to be done. Entities can ask for an advance on their share of the pie but can only receive 75 percent of the estimated amount due them.

Stephens said Lawrence County’s financial picture often looks bleaker the first half of the year because some debts for the whole year are due and payable early on. Commissioners are hoping that newly enacted financial practices at South East Ohio Emergency Medical Services (SEOEMS) will mean less money flowing from the general find to supplement that service, thus allowing more county dollars to be used to meet payroll and pay those bills. Several offices are projected to run out of money in their payroll line items before the end of the year.

“We want people to understand this is something that is at the top of our priority list,” Stephens said. “I want them to understand what the situation is and that we’re working to make it better.”