November 25, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria releases audit results

ELYRIA — If the goal of the much-anticipated performance audit released Thursday was to find ways to save Elyria money, the 112-page document compiled by the State Auditor’s Office did that to the tune of more than $6 million in recommendations.

But city officials are not convinced the cut-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality will work for Elyria. As each City Council member begins poring over the information-rich document to ferret out specific recommendations they agree and disagree with, one notion appears to be pretty uniform.

“Everything was cut, cut, cut,” said Councilwoman Donna Mitchell, D-6th Ward. “But we can’t cut everyone and expect to keep the same level of service in the city.”

The audit does not hide the fact that auditors believe Elyria has too many employees.

Staff reductions across various departments could save the city $2,049,766.

“We do dollars and cents,” said Auditor Dave Yost when explaining why so many recommendations include cutting staff. “But there is more to life than money. City officials will need to make the policy decisions that are best for Elyria’s citizens, as well as their pocketbooks.”

The Health, Community Development, Building, Cemetery and Engineering departments could be substantially restructured, the audit says.

“The audit makes the impression that the city is operating with a lot of individuals working in a lot of unneeded areas,” said Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward. “But in some of the departments I have visited, you see employees that are working tirelessly to keep up with the phone calls and the work flow.”

Still, auditors recommend Elyria look at consolidating the Health Department with the Lorain City Health Department and eventually with the Lorain County Health Department to form a general health district. The financial implications from consolidations are estimated at $67,000, which comes from a 50 percent salary savings of an environmental director and business manager if the city shares the expense.

The audit recommended the city merge the Building and Community Development departments, thus eliminating the need for two positions. Three more positions could be cut in the Cemetery Department and another two positions could be eliminated in the Engineering Department.

“I don’t agree with all of these recommendations,” said Councilman Tom Callahan, D-at large. “We have an older city with a lot of older underground infrastructure, and right now we are sort of in a project-fest, so to speak.”

The audit has 23 different ways the city could save a total of $6.7 million.

Mayor Holly Brinda said she’s not surprised to know the auditors, who worked between July and March using dating from fiscal years 2011 and 2012, came to such a high number.

During the process, countless documents were reviewed and numerous interviews were conducted. In addition, several peer cities were used to make comparisons, including Cuyahoga Falls, Lorain, Middletown, Fairfield and Mansfield.

The audit revealed some pretty alarming practices in the city that continue to cost residents hundreds of thousands of dollars. The most glaring appears to be the way the city bills for the water usage.

In 2011, the city billed nearly $9.1 million to customers for water services and collected roughly $8.4 million for a collection rate of 93.7 percent. In 2011, Elyria’s water pumping plant pumped 3.81 billion gallons of water, but the city reported that 2.826 billion was billed to customers for a water loss percentage of 25.8 percent.

The industry standard is about 15 percent for systems of Elyria’s age, the audit said.

Further driving water loss is that the city does not have meters on the buildings it owns, which means an unknown percentage of water is unaccounted for in those buildings.

The plan for resolving the issue includes switching out older meters and using newer, more reliable technology to track water flow.

The savings from reducing water loss may be significant — upward of $1.1 million.

Council members were shocked to learn that after spending millions to start a new automated trash collection service in 2011, which included spending more than $3 million on new trash trucks the city is still paying for, auditors concluded the city should outsource residential trash service.

The savings is estimated at approximately $1.2 million.

Madison said cutting too many employees too soon would paralyze the city.

He has been very vocal about the need for a cost-benefit analysis for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. He was elated to see that piece detailed in the audit.

Callahan believes the city should create a technology plan and move toward centralized purchasing.

“As big as we are and as much money as we spend, we need to challenge our vendors to show us what they do for us,” he said.

Recommendation: Financial impact

  • Develop an energy conservation management policy $180,693
  • Reduce overtime usage $61,357
  • Competitively bid life insurance coverage $13,920
  • Reduce the use of sick leave $55,865
  • Improve health insurance program $329,000
  • Renegotiate contract with local firefighters’ union $324,086
  • Increase of control in the Police Department $172,075
  • Renegotiate Elyria Police Patrolmen’s Association Contract $131,655
  • Reduce overtime in the Police Department $29,000
  • Enter into a Joint Dispatch Agreement $204,960
  • Adjust base salaries of Safety Service Employees $131,921
  • Consolidate operations to form a general health district $67,000
  • Integrate the Building and Community Development departments $129,371
  • Reduce cemetery staff $158,000
  • Reduce Engineering Department staff $122,616
  • Total General Fund savings $2,111,519
  • Reduce overtime usage $458,503
  • Outsource trash services $1,212,578
  • Reduce water loss and infiltration and inflow $1,130,575
  • Implement late fees on utility bills and adjust payment policies $15,415
  • Reduce utility billing staff $331,784
  • Reduce line maintenance staff $728,577
  • Reduce wastewater staff $708,789
  • Close a city pool $47,500
  • Total savings from enterprise and special funds $4,633,721
  • Total combined savings from all recommendations $6,745,240

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