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Williamsport, Md. audit shows healthier town finances

October 10, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WILLIAMSPORT - For the second straight year, the town of Williamsport's surplus is more than $120,000 - a half-million-dollar turnaround from two years ago.

Mayor James G. McCleaf II said the switch has been like night and day. When he took over in 2005, he found bank accounts that hadn't been reconciled for a year. He said the town had to pick out which bills it could pay.

"It was basically driving a car in the dark with no lights," he said.

Two "key focal points" for getting finances in order, McCleaf said, were appointing a town clerk/treasurer and hiring a bookkeeper.

Assistant Mayor Monty R. Jones said cutting back from 15 or 20 employees to about eight or 10 - trimming salaries, benefits and workers' compensation costs - aided the recovery.

"The financial health of the town is 110 percent better than it was two years ago," he said.

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At the time, the town's financial picture was hazy.

A $4.4 million budget plan for fiscal year 2007 seemed to raise spending 40 percent, but actually didn't. Clerk/Treasurer James R. Castle said then that estimates for the fiscal year 2006 budget, before he worked for the town, seemed inaccurate and incomplete, creating a murky year-to-year comparison.

In March 2006, Ron Shifler, the town's auditor at the time, said Williamsport's combined deficit for 2004 and 2005 was about $425,000.

If the depreciation of assets was included, the deficit was more than $840,000, he said.

Jones said Tuesday that the town was hurt when Allegheny Energy began cutting its local operations several years ago. Allegheny's tax payment to the town dropped from $250,000 to about $60,000, but no one in town government reacted right away, he said.

Town officials later cut costs and used outside firms instead of employees for tasks such as snow removal and mowing grass.

McCleaf said there used to be three full-time public works employees in the summer who cut grass. Now, the work is done through a contract.

In other areas, services were eased back. "We don't run the street sweeper quite as often - because we can't afford to," Jones said.

Innovative funding approaches played a part, too, McCleaf said.

The town has privately raised money for its Christmas lights in the park and for the annual fireworks show. Picking up bulk trash and selling scrap metal paid for a picnic for town employees and volunteers, he said.

The town's fiscal year 2006 audit, done by a new accounting firm, Draper & McGinley, lists an unreserved fund balance of $137,365.

The audit for fiscal year 2007, which the town council recently approved, puts the fund balance at $121,774.

"I think we're showing improvements, but two years is not enough," said Councilman Jeff Cline, who called for continued restraint in spending.

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