Lackawanna County ended last year with red ink on the books, but timely delivery of the audit surveying its finances in 2011 also represents the first step toward renewed fiscal health, officials said.
That‚??s because the audit, whose findings were released by the commissioners on Monday, Oct. 1 was completed not just on time but ahead of schedule ‚?? an accomplishment not seen in a generation.
"This is the earliest I can remember having the audit completed in my 35 years here," said Steve Barcoski, deputy director for revenue and finance.
According to the audit by ParenteBeard‚??s Wilkes-Barre office, the county's books showed with a general fund deficit of $635,241 at the end of 2011, down from an $11.4 million deficit at the end of 2010.
Chief financial officer Thomas Durkin explained that the county would have ended the year much deeper in red ink were it not for $21 million officials borrowed late last year after a court approved their request to take on the unfunded debt.
County leaders hope that after decades of late audits, this year‚??s timely report will improve its standing with lenders whose disfavor drove down Lackawanna's ranking last year.
"Having this document done on time shows the financial community that we mean business. Being on time is going to help us to get out of junk bond status and improve our financial rating," Commissioner Jim Wansacz said.
There is, as noted, a long history to overcome. Durkin said that when he joined the county in 2004, there had not been an audit since 2001. It took several more years to have those years reviewed.
"Partly, the issue was that when I started with the county, we kind of had a manual accounting system," Durkin explained. "It took us time to use the (new) automated system properly ‚?? and it took the auditors time."
The 1972 Home Rule Charter under which the county is governed only requires an audit every four years, Durkin added, but county officials have adopted a yearly system for several practical reasons. First, he said, yearly audits are required to meet reporting terms under many of the county‚??s debt agreements ‚?? a goal achieved with this audit. Also, yearly reporting requirements for federal funding mean the county already is collecting much of the information needed for an overall audit, Durkin added.
Still, meeting an annual deadline clearly has posed a challenge for administrations over the years ‚?? a failure majority Commissioners Wansacz and Corey O'Brien resolved to fix after the 2010 audit was not delivered until February.
The commissioners initiated the 2011 audit process began in February of this year by notifying departments that a final draft of their audit components was due to revenue and finance officials by June 15.
It worked, and ParenteBeard delivered the final document to the county on Thursday, Sept. 27 ‚?? three days ahead of the deadline.
In a contrast with the tumultuous years of the Robert C. Cordaro administration, when then-minority Commissioner Mike Washo frequently castigated the majority over late audits, this year‚??s process was uniformly complimented by all three commissioners.
"I want to thank our entire Revenue & Finance Department for its work on this venture along with all the departments for getting their data in on time to do the general audit," said minority Commissioner Patrick O'Malley. ‚??This teamwork concept is how County government is supposed to work for the benefit of our residents."
"A lot of people stepped-up to the plate to get this done, setting a huge precedent moving forward," O'Brien added.
"We expect the same will happen next year," he said.
The audit can be read online at http://www.lackawannacounty.org/uploads/commissioners/2011%20FINAL%20AUDIT.pdf