The destiny of Mount Sterling lies within the hands of the residents, according to Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost.
In an interview at the Madison Press’ offices in London, Auditor Yost said that any future issues, ranging from future leaders to getting past what many consider a “black eye on the village” is not up to him or the state.
“Healing is a wonderful thing, but it’s a political process,” he said. “I’m worried about money.”
After four years of theft in office and a lack of oversight, the aftermath of former village administrator Joe Johnson’s spending spree with the village’s credit cards ultimately left a general fund more than $400,000 in the red. Recently, that has climbed down to about $300,000.
Yost said the massive size of the loss was a “a matter of concern” and that his office is constantly reviewing the books for the village to ensure they have a clear and accurate observation of the fiscal status. The most recent briefing he received was about two months ago.
“There’s no way there’s not going to be a loss,” he said. “But we don’t know how large the ultimate loss will be.”
“We have real estate that’s being sold,” he added. “So how that works out is going to have an impact of where the village is, because we may not even come back to the village.”
However, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel, according to Yost.
“I think the end is in sight,” he said. “The last two cases, I think, are running through the system. Absent something turning up unexpectedly, I think we’re pretty close to wrapping this up.”
The cases in question are those of former Mayor Charlie Neff and former Clerk Bonnie Liff, who were both arraigned in court last week, entering not guilty pleas.
When exactly those trials end is ultimately tentative as their respective defense attorneys could file extensions, pushing dates back.
After it is all said and done, he mentioned the Auditor’s office would be viewing the situation much closer than usual due to it being such an extreme situation. However, it wouldn’t be extremely hands on, to the point of a day-to-day review, unless the fiscal distress the village is in is determined to be particularly severe.
The case, among others, has also led to the Auditor’s office creating a set of new “best practices” for credit cards, such as not allowing anyone to carry the card in their wallet or having the card in the village’s name, not the employee’s.
Mayor Lowell Anderson mentioned he refused to allow the village to have a credit card while he was in office.
Yost noted, in his opinion, it was not practical for villages to not have a credit card, as some businesses won’t want to set up separate accounts.
Investigating Mount Sterling
At recent council meetings, Anderson has complained that the investigation has been overbearing and not transparent at times. In January, when news broke, the general fund was far in the red.
“They’re now covering things they should have covered in previous audits, which we paid for. Why is all of this coming out now?” he asked at a council meeting.
Yost scoffed at the idea the process would be transparent.
“Of course it hasn’t,” he said. “How can you conduct an open and transparent criminal investigation? Now I understand why the mayor might wish he had more information.”
Yost said that there are interpersonal relationships and political nuances the auditor’s office simply doesn’t know and needed to be as cautious as possible as long as there was a criminal investigation.
“When we came in here, we didn’t know who the good guys and the bad guys are, what we knew was there’s a ton of money missing,” he added. “You think we’re just going to put that information on the streets? So the bad guys know where we’re going and how we’re going there?”
The addition of an audit of the village’s financial books, which were in utter disarray, made the process even slower.
“When you have an audit coupled with a criminal investigation you have to make sure you’re going in the right direction,” he said. “You have to make sure you’re protecting your end product [the audit report].”
Keep government accountable: It’s in the people’s hands
While the fiscal situation is going to be overseen by the Auditor’s office for some time, future reform and public accountability is up to the people.
One idea floated around by some residents is to become unincorporated, which some have asked for the auditor’s office to do or expect them to do so.
“Under Ohio law, that happens by the people,” he said. “That’s a local decision.”
He mentioned every election cycle, a village votes to unincorporate. But he said the fact Mount Sterling offers services such as water, it seemed there were reasons the village might choose not to.
When asked how Ohioans can keep their local governments in check, Yost recommended looking at his office’s website at ohioauditor.gov.
He also said to look out for several things:
• Watch out for declining general fund balances. “If you have $60,000 in the general fund one year and then two years down it’s $20,000 and then now it’s only $7,000, that’s indicative of over spending,” he said.
• Budgetary violations. “Check and see if people are following the rules,” he said. “There are rules that we cite people for, such as controls that keep people from misspending or over spending. If in our audit, you see the same thing from year to year, that means something is going wrong.”
• Advocate your municipality enter the Ohio Checkbook program. “You can see check level detail,” he said, “[For example] you can see that ‘we paid Joe’s Excavating Service $238.18 in June of last year to do a repair on a sewer line.’ It’s that specific. If your community is signed up for that, you can see where every dollar goes… It’s a great tool.”
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617 or on Twitter @MSFKwiat.