Water accounts under review

STEUBENVILLE – Four City Council members called for an independent audit of the city’s water fund Tuesday night, but City Manager Tim Boland urged patience as the city auditors prepare to conduct an annual review of the city’s financial status.

“We can meet with the auditors from Rea and Co. for an entrance conference before they start their annual audit. I already had a productive meeting with the auditors and I told them to pay close attention to the delinquent water accounts. They will look at that issue as they conduct their audit for the next several weeks. It is a good starting point. If it makes sense at that point we can look at an independent audit,” Boland said.

Council will meet in executive session at 5 p.m. on Jan. 30 with the auditors to review several issues.

Fifth Ward Councilman Willie Paul and 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna joined ranks Tuesday with 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto and 2nd Ward Councilman Mike Johnson to call for an independent audit after a letter from Craig Klein, president and chief executive officer of Capital Recovery Systems Inc., was read.

In his letter, Klein said he told the city “it would be in their best interests to find another (collection) agency. I made this decision based on the fact that there was very little commitment on the city’s part to make this project successful. Debt collections agencies are required by federal law to provide proof of the debt within 30 days of request from a debtor. Our managers did not feel like this was a priority on the city’s part to get us that proof. Cases had to be closed due to not providing proof in a timely manner.”

“I have specific concerns. I would like to see an audit on this issue. Even after the city audit is completed there will still be doubts,” said Villamagna.

“I want an independent audit. I am tired of people pointing the fingers at us,” added Paul.

“I want an independent audit of all of the delinquent accounts. If we collected the money it should be easy to prove. The best way to defend ourselves is with an independent audit,” Johnson said.

“I would suggest the administration have the opportunity to review this letter we received tonight. It is imperative to move forward. We can review this letter and have a follow-up at the next utility committee meeting,” said Boland.

“We owe it to Tim to let him do his due diligence and get his footing on this issue. After we meet with Rea and Co. we can determine if we need an independent audit,” responded 3rd Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf.

“We will need a response from the administration on the Capital Recovery Systems letter, we need a definite number of the level of delinquent accounts, we need to look at the idea of holding landlords responsible for their tenants’ delinquent water bills and we need to look at publishing the names of delinquent water accounts in the newspaper and on the city website. I would also like to shrink the timeframe of collecting our water bills. That might help us with the number of delinquent accounts. It may allow us to be more aggressive,” remarked Metcalf.

But 4th Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs opposed publishing the names of delinquent water accounts.

“We are providing people a service. This isn’t the cable. I know we are in trouble but I don’t want us to become a corporation and publicly go after people. It is insulting for us to talk about publicly embarrassing our city residents,” stated Suggs.

The delinquent water account issue also was the focus of the public forum part of the council meeting, with city resident Jim Mavromatis saying having city auditors review the water accounts, “is like having the fox looking at the hen house.”

“When you have an outside auditor, they issue their findings. You have to show your customers that you have done everything within your power. There was $3 million in collected delinquent water accounts and that is too much. You need an independent audit,” said Mavromatis.

Also during the public forum city resident Joe Scalise called for an audit of the construction of the water filtration plant.

“That was a $22 million rip-off. The plant is short staffed and in need of repairs,” said Scalise.

And, council heard from Tammy Sweeney of Steubenville who said as a landlord she is opposed to being responsible for her tenants’ water bills.

“Are you going to put the electric bills and gas bills in my name as well? If you put the water in my name and the tenant doesn’t pay, can I turn their water off?” asked Sweeney.

During the regular meeting, council approved the third reading of legislation that will regulate vacant houses and commercial buildings in the city as well as an ordinance to bring the city’s building code in compliance with the state building code.

Council also approved an ordinance authorizing the approval of expenditures without a purchase order for more than $3,000.

And, Rich Wilinski, principal of Catholic Central High School, accepted a resolution proclaiming next week as Catholic Schools Week in the city.

Council heard the first reading of an ordinance entering into a contract with Cross Creek Township for a mutual aid agreement for police protection between the township and the city.

The council planning committee is set to meet at 6 p.m. today in council chambers to discuss limiting future rental properties in the city.