SALEM - The city Utilities Commission agreed Tuesday to be included in the city's proposed performance audit which will look at how departments operate and whether they can improve efficiency.
In making the motion to be included, commission member Bob Hodgson said if the state does find any savings, the department could end up saving money over the long haul since the cost of the audit will be a one-time expense and the savings will continue from year to year.
Plans call for the state Auditor's Office to conduct the audit and look at the areas of administration, public safety, public works and parks and recreation to see if anything can be done differently for a cost savings. The cost has been set at $71,700, which is more than last year's estimate since the scope has been enlarged to include the utilities and parks departments.
City Council's Finance Committee agreed in June to pursue a loan from the Leverage for Efficiency, Accountability and Performance (LEAP) Fund to defer the cost of a performance audit. The state will fund the audit up front and if potential savings are identified through audit recommendations, the city will pay the loan back through the savings. If no possible savings are identified, the city won't owe anything.
Last year's council voted 4-3 against accepting LEAP funding and against going forward with a performance audit.
Mayor John Berlin, who had been one of the councilmen in favor of the proposal last year, explained the process briefly to the Utilities Commission. He said the audit would give the city information that could be shared with the public and give great accountability to the public.
No changes to contractual obligations can be considered for recommendations, although Berlin said the state could still make suggestions for consideration during future contract negotiations. He said the cost to each department would depend on the savings, if any, found. If all the savings were found in the utilities department and none in the other departments, then the payback obligation would fall on the utilities department.
He told commissioners their obligation could range from zero to $71,700 - no more than that, but with a potential for less than the total cost.
Commission Vice Chairman Primo Citino questioned whether there would be any monetary fines if the city responded in a year that certain recommendations in the audit could not be met. Berlin said there would be no fines. He said the city will have the chance to dispute facts used to reach the conclusions before the report is released publicly and will be consulted throughout the process.
Berlin said he has no fear that little will be found, saying it's his opinion the city is already being run efficiently. He said he recommended the Utilities Commission agree to be included.
"We all have a vested interest in accountability to the public," he said.
Commission Chairman Geoff Goll called the audit an excellent tool and an opportunity to have an outside firm come inside and look at the operations and compare those operations to other operations statewide. He said his hesitancy was in the prospective cost, but noting it is a one-year cost vs. a multi-year cost.
The city Parks Commission has not met regarding the performance audit, but will hold its regular monthly meeting at 5 p.m. Nov. 28.
The Committee of the Whole of city council will meet at 7 p.m. Nov. 27 to further discuss the performance audit.
In other Utilities Commission business, the commission agreed to ask the Pembrooke Condominium Association for an easement for 461.4 feet of sewer line located on Canterbury Lane. The commission had previously taken over responsibility for the water mains within the private condo development at the corner of Pidgeon Road and state Route 45.
Utilities Superintendent Don Weingart said the city's Southridge Drive sewer line runs through the privately-owned Canterbury sewer line, which is not a good position. This way the city will take responsibility for that 461.4 feet of sewer line on Canterbury Lane.
The next Utilities Commission meeting is set for 3 p.m. Dec. 11. The reorganization meeting for 2013 will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 8.