April 21, 2014

Elyria
Intermittent clouds
67°F
test

Elyria audit due for release

ELYRIA — A 92-page performance audit for the city will be released today — almost a year to the date since auditors arrived in Elyria to pore over financial statements and documents detailing city operations.

The city volunteered for the process in the hopes of learning ways to save money. And, regardless of the outcome, Mayor Holly Brinda said her administration knows more about city operations today than it did one year ago.

However, the audit will not be the comprehensive review of city operations seen through the eyes of auditors as many thought was going to be the case when Brinda first pushed for the audit in 2012. Rather, Brinda gave the auditors a list of more than 30 objectives she wanted reviewed, and they followed that path.

That fact has left some wondering if the audit did its intended job.

“I thought it was going to be what the auditors thought they should look at based on audits they have done for other cities,” said Councilman Larry Tanner, D-1st Ward. “I didn’t think we were going to tell them what to do.”

Prior to the start of the audit, the city needed to find a way to pay for it and turned to the state’s Leverage for Efficiency, Accountability and Performance fund. The way the program works, the fund paid for the study, which in Elyria’s case is an estimated $119,000, with the expectation the loan will be repaid next year from savings reaped from implementing the audit’s recommendations.

The application for the loan asks a number of questions, including what the city hoped to learn from the audit. It is there 30 areas that should be assessed are listed.

Brinda maintains she did not steer the audit.

“I could not influence the findings,” she said. “That’s the entire reason the city of Elyria made a voluntary request to go through this process.”

The performance audit was conducted between July 2012 and March using data from fiscal years 2011 and 2012. Documents were reviewed and interviews were conducted. In addition, several peer cities were used to make comparisons, including Cuyahoga Falls, Lorain, Middletown, Fairfield and Mansfield.

And, when warranted, the report was modified based on the city’s comments.

As such, Councilman Garry Gibbs, R-3rd Ward, said the questions clouded the neutrality of the audit.

“I would question how independent the performance audit and recommendations actually are after this year-long process,” he said. “These findings are factual, but as we all know, questions can be skewed to favor an interest.”

It appears as if the performance audit was crafted with an agenda, Gibbs said.

Brinda said questions were asked of the auditors because audits look exclusively through a financial lens, but she has the responsibility of addressing the preferences of the community and giving residents the information they need to determine what they are willing to pay for.

The questions highlight strategic and financial areas of importance for the city.

But her approach has some wondering if too much emphasis was placed on areas that have already been decided.

As has been previously disclosed, the audit spells out three options for Elyria when it comes to fire service and the role emergency medicine plays in the city: split service between firefighting and EMS within the Fire Department, continue with the agreement with LifeCare Ambulance Co. with some modifications to allow for more Fire Department involvement or go completely private for EMS.

“The problem with the way we did this is it focused the auditors when we wanted them to take a fresh look without being tipped off to where the issues may be,” said Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward. “The LEAP application, if you look at it, breaks it down, so a lot of time is spent on an issue that is dead.”

Craig referred to the 2009 audit of the Fire Department by the McGrath Consulting Group. In it, the consultants very pointedly said, “It is hard for the consultants to justify replacing a private ambulance company that appears to provide excellent service, and for the city to take on a significant expense when currently they are receiving these services for free. The consultants do not believe that service delivery to patients would improve if the Fire Department took over emergency transports.”

“We went though painstaking effort to select a mixed committee of representatives that would select a consultant we could all agree on because, from the very beginning, we agreed to stand behind the audit,” Craig said. “But this new audit looks at so much of the same things it’s obvious we spent a significant amount of money to review something Council has said it was not going to review.”

Craig said he would not be in favor of any conversation related to adding EMS service to the Fire Department.

“I see EMS as fool’s gold,” he said. “She is going to continue to mine for fool’s gold, and it’s not going to get us anywhere.”

Whether the report will yield benefits for Elyria is yet to be seen. But Tanner said it will be up to Council to make the most out of the audit.

“I’m open to what they did come up with, but we will have to see how many we actually implement,” he said. “Until you practice what you preach, whether this was worth it is open (to discussion).”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.