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Village settles debt with OPERS

Money that would have normally gone into the Village of Coal Grove’s general fund was diverted in January to pay more than $40,000 owed to the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS).

Lawrence County Auditor Jason Stephens’ office last Tuesday received two letters from OPERS Manager-Employer Reporting Manager Patricia Brammer that stated the debt had been satisfied.

“As of Feb. 6, 2014, we received payment for this certification,” Brammer wrote in the letters. “You may consider the certification against Village of Coal Grove Lawrence County to be satisfied.”

Stephens received two separate letters and each showed different amounts; one for $1,940.80 and another for $40,509.08.

Lawrence County Chief Deputy Auditor Chris Kline said in mid-January the auditor’s office received a bill from OPERS and in compliance with the Ohio Revised Code had to withhold three revenue streams — property taxes, mobile home taxes and the Local Government Fund — and divert that money to OPERS until the debt was paid. The latter of the three revenue streams is generated from the state’s general fund.

“Our office received a bill from OPERS for more than $40,000,” Kline said. “Ohio Revised Code mandates certain money be withheld from Coal Grove’s general fund and be used to pay the debt. We now no longer have to collect the debt and can release the garnishment.”

In 2012 the village’s general fund was $573,000, according to a state audit, and the village’s total budget that year was $850,000.

Coal Grove is required to pay OPERS monthly, Kline said, and after several months of nonpayment OPERS used the amount from the last month paid to arrive at the repayment amount.

“Governments that pay into PERS are self-reporting,” Kline said. “All we are given is a total. We don’t know if it includes any late fees, penalties or interest. It’s similar to someone getting their wages garnished.”

The money withheld, Kline said, can only come from the village’s general fund.

A regular audit of the Village of Coal Grove reported the village paid all OPERS contributions in 2012, but as of Oct. 2, 2013, owed $1,800.64 in delinquent fees, penalties and interest reported in the state audit through June 2013. Since then the amount has increased every month.

All employees of the Village of Coal Grove belong to OPERS except police officers, which belong to the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund (OP&F).

Questions about the Village of Coal Grove’s finances and reporting methods have long been an issue. Village council requested an audit in May 2013 after multiple late payments of bills and insurance.

“We are kind of operating in the dark,” Larry McDaniel, Coal Grove mayor said last May after council requested the audit. “We didn’t know how much money we had or what bills have been paid…we felt like there should have been more money.”

Multiple calls to Coal Grove Clerk-Treasurer Diana Wise were not returned.