Prosecutor takes up issue of liability for late-paid bills

A political group wants commissioners to be held personally responsible for the bills.
& lt;a & gt;By BOB JACKSON & lt;/a & gt;
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains said he'll look into whether county commissioners can be held liable for late payment of county utility bills.
The research was prompted by a letter Gains received Thursday afternoon from the Democrats of the 17th and 6th District, a local political group that asked him to file a civil action against commissioners.
The Vindicator reported in March that the county paid more than $10,000 in late fees to utility companies over a 14-month period and received several shut-off notices during the same time.
The state auditor's office, prompted by the news story, already is looking into the matter. An independent auditing firm is conducting an audit of county finances for the state. Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery asked the firm to expand its audit to include the utility bills.
At issue
Atty. Mark Belinky, president of the political group, said in the letter to Gains that the late payments were for bills processed by the commissioners' central accounts-payable office.
"These are funds of the county that have been clearly misapplied," Belinky wrote. "The failure of the commissioners to ensure that county obligations are paid in a proper manner is clear misfeasance in office, and the commissioners should be held personally accountable."
Gains said he's not sure Ohio law allows commissioners to be held liable for late payment of bills.
"I don't know that any state audit has ever issued a finding for recovery for late payment of bills," he said. "It very well might be that the commissioners aren't the ones responsible."
He said the fault could end up lying with the individual officeholders who received the bills in the first place.
"We'll have to look at the law and see what remedies are available," Gains said.
Not uncommon
Doug Putnam, a staff attorney with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, told The Vindicator last month that late payment of utility bills happens with some regularity across the state. He said it's because of the inefficient nature of county government, which requires that bills pass through several offices for approval before they are paid.
"It would seem to me that there could be a whole host of people who could be responsible," said county Administrator Gary Kubic, noting that commissioners can't be liable for officials who submit bills late.
Kubic had not seen Belinky's letter but said commissioners will allow Gains to handle the matter for them. He said commissioners are looking at how other large counties pay their utility bills, hoping to find a solution to the problem.
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