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Council is still keeping an eye on city's books

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - Updated: 10:23 AM

By ALISSA SCOTT

alissa.scott@recordernews.com

The former Common Council made several attempts to repair the city's finances before leaving office in December, but since, the new council has spent much of its time tending to the city's Municipal Golf Course.

Council members say that although it appears finances have taken a back seat, that is not the case.

"I meet with [Matt Agresta, city controller] two times a week," 4th Ward Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler said. "Because we're concerned with the city's finances, doesn't mean the whole city stands still. Every department does their every-day job."

An official audit by the state Comptroller's Office said for the past four years, the city inappropriately recorded its figures, leaving its financial picture cloudy.

It explained that officials had been working with inaccurate accounting records to craft the city's budgets, leaving no way to determine if all revenues were deposited into city accounts. Attempts at reconciliation were unsuccessful in many cases, auditors said.

According to Hatzenbuhler, from her meetings with Agresta, the city's books beginning July 1 to the present have all been recorded accurately and according to standard practice. Those that come before July 1 are being worked on by Lauren Poehlman and West & Co., two former council hires with the task of reconciling the city's capital projects and remaining accounts, respectively.

Third Ward Alderman Ronald J. Barone Sr. said the city's finances are "absolutely" a concern of council's -- they're just waiting for the firms to finish their work.

"We can't push them any faster," Barone said. "We want them done right."

Barone said he hasn't been meeting with Agresta like Hatzenbuhler has, but 1st Ward Alderman Edward Russo said he is and is satisfied with the work the two firms are doing alongside deputy controller David Mitchell and Agresta.

"Between Matt and David, I think they're doing a great job," Russo said. "And I think the auditors are doing a great job."

Barone said he appreciates Agresta's periodical updates, one goal of his and other councilmen during their campaigns, but he would rather wait until information is more definitive.

"What me and all the council members are saying is don't come to us with just bits and pieces," Barone said. "Try to get them so accurate that we can actually report on what's really going on."

Hatzenbuhler said she's been keeping up with their progress, and though during council and committee meetings Agresta's financial updates are brief, it's because there really is little to report.

During the last Common Council meeting Agresta said the two firms were working well, on schedule and making improvements.

"That's really all that's going on," Hatzenbuhler said. "They are doing what they're supposed to be doing, but there are no answers until they're done. I know what they're doing, it's just that they don't have an answer to give us until everything is posted."

Russo said he thinks Agresta doesn't want to say much until the numbers are more accurate.

At the last council meeting, the Land Bank Advisory Board requested several thousand dollars from the city to continue work rehabilitating decaying homes around the city -- similar to the work they are doing on Julia Street.

A resolution requested $60,000 in $15,000 installments, but the council shot it down. They said they can't be sure they actually have that money and are trying to be responsible with spending.

"I'm not going to spend money until I know where I stand," Russo said.

Hatzenbuhler said when it comes time to start crafting the city's budget in April, there will be certain accounts the council can fiddle with, like expenses and revenues, but others, like capital projects and bonds, won't be ready.

"We can get from the state of New York, we can get the pension numbers, we can also get our insurance numbers," Hatzenbuhler said. "Accounting will be able to give us if there are any salary increases."

Barone said on top of his concerns with the golf course, he's been thinking about the city's finances and budgeting all along.

He invited an outside firm to audit the city's health insurance and liability coverage to try and save the city money. He said he's also looking at down-sizing employee benefits to save money.

"Things are still happening," Barone said. "We're not shut down for business by any means. We're big boys and girls, we're not little children. We know what we're doing."

Agresta could not be reached for comment.

     

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