Councilman calls for independent audit

STEUBENVILLE – Second Ward Councilman Mike Johnson called for an independent audit of the city’s delinquent water accounts Tuesday night, citing a need to regain public trust.

Johnson made his request during a 45-minute council utility committee meeting that also saw him request a change in the water billing process, “so elderly residents aren’t paying the delinquent fee every month because of how their income is scheduled.”

“I think we need to have an independent audit of our delinquent accounts by the state auditor’s office to get back the public trust. I don’t think there should be a problem with an independent audit. I have been told of cases where prominent citizens have been delinquent but nothing has been done about them. An independent audit would address these issues,” Johnson said.

“I want to assure you we will have one set of rules for everyone,” responded City Manager Tim Boland.

“If you know of one instance of a prominent person who had his delinquent account dropped out I would like you to provide me with the names,” noted City Law Director S. Gary Repella.

Boland said he has encouraged his staff to determine a delinquency policy.

“We need to show how that issue is being addressed. We need an action plan for addressing delinquent accounts. We also need to review our delinquent policy and continue to improve our delinquent collection rates,” Boland remarked.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs said she did not think an independent audit will stop rumors.

“We do need a clear definition of delinquencies. I am not afraid of an audit. But there will be people who will still believe it isn’t accurate,” said Suggs.

Third Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf said the utility committee will meet again at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday prior to the regular council meeting to continue discussing the delinquent accounts issue as well as Boland’s plans to prepare for the implementation of the new water rate increase approved by a 5-2 vote last week.

“We need to determine how we will notify our water customers about the increase in their bills. We will put together an outreach to all water customers as we get closer to the Feb. 5 effective date,” said Boland.

Finance Director Alyssa Kerker said the $3.90 increase will go into effect while the remaining $1.30 increase for every 1,000 gallons of water used will be pro-rated effective Feb. 5 through the month until everyone is on the same billing cycle.

“We have placed a worksheet on the city’s website so customers can look at their water consumption and calculate their new billing amount,” Kerker explained.

According to Boland, his staff is preparing the most effective way to approach water leak detection and water line breaks, “in order to prioritize our water line replacement action plan.”

“We know we have chronic issues in certain neighborhoods. Now we need to put a plan together for dealing with those chronic breaks,” noted Boland.

“We are estimating about $340,000 annually from the rate increase. I want you to start looking at the dollars coming in and how those dollars are spent. We need to be transparent and accountable to the residents so they know we are good stewards with the money,” Metcalf told Boland.

Boland said he will be working with his staff to put together a two-year action plan for review in March.

Fifth Ward Councilman Willie Paul asked for an updated list of new commercial meters that are being installed.

And Mayor Domenick Mucci said the city manager will need to send a letter to all commercial water customers stating it will be mandatory to change to the new meter system.

During the sunshine meeting, Suggs scheduled a planning committee meeting for 6 p.m. on Jan. 22 in council chambers to discuss a proposal by 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto.

DiLoreto said he would like to see the city consider legislation to limit the number of future rental units.

Metcalf proposed a resolution honoring Catholic Schools Week set for Jan. 26 through Feb. 1.

Paul introduced an ordinance authorizing the city manager to approve a mutual aid agreement with the Cross Creek Township Police Department.

And Metcalf called for a council-as-a-whole committee meeting at 6 p.m. on Jan. 28 to discuss goals for Boland and a 7 p.m. meeting with City Engineer Mike Dolak to discuss the 2014 street improvement projects.

“I hope something can be done on Lovers Lane. The city crews are out there patching the potholes every day but the cold weather and rain washes the patch material out within hours. We really need to see something done on Lovers Lane this year,” said 6th Ward Councilman Robert Villamagna.