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Luzerne County pays first, OKs later
Some people call the system of bill-paying backwards, but county officials say it's efficient, safe and courteous to vendors.

Times-Leader Staff Writer

WILKES-BARRE - By the time the Luzerne County commissioners vote on millions of dollars in bills at a public meeting, the checks are already in the mail.

The public never has the chance to question a bill before the county pays it. And the commissioners never say at their meetings how much the county has spent, or where the money went.

If taxpayers want to learn more, they have to play detective.

The commissioners provide clues. For example, at their April 1 meeting, the board voted to "ratify and confirm" 567 checks in one motion. But the public only got to see the beginning and ending check numbers from three separate accounts.

Few people follow the path those check numbers lead to the Controller's Office.

Other counties with a similar population size don't pay their bills this way.
In Dauphin County, "The only way anything is paid is after the commissioners approve it at their meeting," Controller Marie Rebuck said Wednesday.

Ditto in Berks County. Deputy Controller Audrey Kirkhoff said the method of paying bills followed by Luzerne County "sounds backwards."

Luzerne County officials defend their bill paying system, saying it provides efficiency, accuracy and accountability.

Chief Clerk/Administrator Gene Klein said the process is swift because "Ninety nine percent of our vendors are looking for prompt payment to keep their businesses afloat."

Despite that external pressure to pay up, there are "very few errors," Klein said. Even when a mistake is discovered after a check has been mailed, "it can be voided in a heartbeat. We've never had a problem."

So, why did it take the county four months to learn that PSS Technologies - a company run by two Emergency Management Agency employees - received $48,000 in county business last year?

"We caught it faster than a bank would," Klein said. "Where the system failed in that particular case I can't comment. It would be violating the confidence of the (state police) investigation."

But asked about the decades-old method the county has used to pay bills, Klein said it requires taxpayers to trust their elected officials, who in turn rely on the veracity of department heads.

In the EMA case, the agency's appointed director, Jim Siracuse, is also under investigation. Siracuse, who said he declined to become a partner in PSS, allegedly created bills on his home computer that PSS later submitted to him for payment.

The payments to PSS were ratified and confirmed by the commissioners in the same way they approved the 567 checks on April 1.

Copies of those April 1 checks are kept on file in the controller's Office. A four-hour review found they totaled more than $2.76 million, with about $1.5 million going into the paychecks of county employees.

Other payments ranged from $52 spent at Angelo's Pizza, Wyoming, to feed clients of the county's Mental Health/Mental Retardation program, to Bell Atlantic phone bills that totaled $15,899.

"To question one of these bills, you'll have to argue with the department head," said Deputy Controller Tom Dugan.

Dugan said he can remember just a few instances during his 23 years in the Controller's Office when someone asked to see all of the bills the commissioners approved at a public meeting.

The commissioners get a list of every check cut by the Controller's Office at about the same time the Treasurer's Office is given the checks to mail out.

Commissioners Frank Crossin and Joseph "Red" Jones do only random checks of the list, Dugan and Klein said. Chairman Tom Makowski reads the entire list.

Under a policy change implemented in December, Makowski also approves any bill or purchase of more than $500 before the check is cut.

But when the board holds its public meeting, the commissioners "can't object to any payments," Dugan said. "These are all done deals."

Asked why the commissioners don't bring the list to their meetings for the public to review, Dugan said, "Commissioners meetings are not designed to be an all-day affair. It's a business meeting."

County spokesman Jim Torbik agreed. "The government is huge. You're talking about $160 million budget. To list every single item (purchased) over a two week period would just become prohibitive."

Yet, York County does exactly "the opposite," according to county Solicitor David Craun.

"The checks are ready to go, but they don't go until they're approved at the meeting," Craun said.

The commissioners in that county brought a list of bills 150 pages long to their meeting Wednesday, Craun said. No one from the public asked to see where the money was going.

Thursday, April 16, 1998