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Mistakes cost township taxpayers thousands


Xenia Twp. taxpayers have lost at least $5,000 during the past 18 months with more to come from late fees, penalties and interest because the newly elected fiscal officer did not make pension contributions, insurance payments, federal taxes and vendors’ fees in a timely matter.

That total is expected to grow after the Internal Revenue Service and the township fiscal officer sort out the township’s tax liabilities and the subsequent penalties and interest for failing to file in a timely manner.

“It’s probably my fault more than anybody else’s,” said Barbara Miller, the fiscal officer. “I made plenty of mistakes.”

Miller was elected in November 2011 and took office April 1 when the incumbent she defeated resigned a month early. Miller said she had no idea what the job entailed or any of her responsibilities.

There are no statutory requirements to run for fiscal officer, nor any required training.

A bill introduced during the 2011/2012 General Assembly session and again this year would change that — requiring a minimum of 13 hours of training before a newly elected fiscal officer could take office and require an additional 16 hours of continuing education during the first year in office. Continuing education would be required in all subsequent years.

Those involved in township governance said financial issues often happen when a new fiscal officer takes office in any of the state’s 1,308 townships.

“It is a technical, administrative position that takes preparation and a certain degree of skill and competence,” said Philip Russo Jr, director of the Center for Public Management and Regional Affairs at Miami University.

“A lot of people, including myself, around the state have problems getting started,” said Theodore Hodson, Sugarcreek Twp. fiscal officer, who was elected in 2004.

A search of Xenia Twp. documents obtained by the Dayton Daily News under the Ohio Sunshine Act found:

  • Quarterly tax payments were not filed on time with the Internal Revenue Service in 2012.
  • Quarterly payments were not made to the Ohio Police & Firefighters Pension Fund in 2012. Those contributions, plus penalties and interest, amounted to $29,913 as of the end of March. The pension fund reduced the penalties to $3,112.50.
  • Monthly payments were not made to the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. From April 16 to July 22 township employees were without workers compensation because the insurance had lapsed.
  • Monthly payments were not made to the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System from July 2012 through October 2012. Penalties totaled to date $1,728.39
  • Local merchants were forced to wait more than 60 days, in some cases, for payment, and when payment were received, they were sometimes incorrect. An invoice for $2,462.50 from a local locksmith resulted in a $32,012.50 check. A $205.60 invoice from a fire apparatus company resulted in a check for $25.60.
  • The township’s credit card for emergency use was blocked for nonpayment.
  • Township employees complained in 2012 and this year that their paychecks were incorrect.
  • And as of Sept. 30, the township is $2,713.58 delinquent on its Greene County property tax on property that is supposed to be tax exempt.

 

In the past six weeks, Miller has been working with a traveling clerk from the state Auditor’s Office to straighten out the books. She had sought help from other fiscal officers and traveling clerks, but said she did not learn from them.

“Now we are track to get things paid on time,” Miller said last month.

Help is available through the state Auditor’s Office, the Ohio Township Association and a government center at Miami University. But it is not mandatory.

“There was plenty of help for me, but I still had to learn the job,” Christy Ahrens, Beavercreek Twp. fiscal officer, said of her first months after her appointment to office in 2006 and election the next year.

In many cases when a new fiscal officer takes over, the books are not in order . If elected, the fiscal officer takes office May 1, almost five months after elected. The intent is that the incumbent will train his or her successor. That seldom happens, some fiscal officers said.

“There was no help. I was pretty much high and dry,” Hodson said. Despite years of experience in business, Hodson said he had no extensive background in bookkeeping or finance.

Ahrens was appointed after the fiscal officer quit. “The books were unauditable. It was a mess,” she said.

Xenia Township trustees have said no money is missing.

The fix

The mandatory training is part of a broader proposed law — the Fiscal Integrity Act — that affects all elected treasurers, county auditors as well as fiscal officers. The legislation also includes a mechanism for removing them from office.

“We are trying to ensure the best thing for the fiscal officers and the taxpayers. The least we can do is the basic training,” said Rep. Christina Hagan, R-50th, the bill’s sponsor.

The bill has the backing of state Auditor Dave Yost, who, Hagan said, worked closely with her on the bill.

“The Fiscal Integrity Act has been, and continues to be, a top legislative priority for me,” Yost said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing my work with the General Assembly to hold accountable those entrusted with our tax dollars.”

The help

Help, said several fiscal officers, is only a phone call away.

“Whenever I have a question, I call the local (state) auditor’s office in Dayton, and they are more than helpful and responsive,” Ahrens said.

Hodson agreed.

“You have to work with them. I’m one for asking questions. It’s better to look stupid because it’s not an easy job for people to jump into,” he said.

In addition to phone help and introductory training, the state auditor provides a list of traveling clerks for hire who can give one-on-one direction through the intricacies of the Unified Accounting Network, a suite of computer accounting software that keeps the books straight — as long as the fiscal officer learns how to use it.

Once learned, Ahrens said the UAN system won’t let you make errors. “If you try to do something that doesn’t fit the procedures, it just won’t let it happen,” she said.

Hodson said UAN support, both for the process and for the hardware, was exceptional. “I had a a hard drive crash a few weeks ago, and they were great. I didn’t lose a thing,” he said.

Pat Quillen, who has been the fiscal officer for Concord Twp. in Miami County since 2000, except for two years when she was county treasurer, recalled her early days as a village treasurer and all the entries were made by hand. She was one of the early adopters of UAN when it was DOS-based.

“Now they can remotely access your computer to walk through whatever problem you have,” she said.

“They (the auditor’s office) want you to do well. They don’t want their auditors to come into a nightmare.”

 


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