City Council, finance committee evaluate bill payment options

City Council’s finance committee is going to work with the city finance department to prevent late bills, one of which caused a work stoppage on the critical levee recertification.

One upcoming solution will be to hire a new finance department employee.

A list of unpaid bills that are up to two months past due has been requested from city Controller Margaret Woodring by the committee chaired by Councilwoman Liz Miele.

“I think they want to see an accounting of outstanding bills for 30 to 60 days,” Woodring said on Thursday. “It would come through finance. I don’t know what they are until they get to me.”

The issue of late bills surfaced when a critical component of the levee recertification was not getting done after the engineering firm stopped working because it was not paid.

William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director, said the matter has been resolved.

“No invoices will be held 60 days if they pass a three-part review process,” he said. “We don’t pay any bills without doing our due diligence and doing our fidiciary responsibility.”

“A bill pack would have prevented the engineer on the levee from stopping the job,” said Jason Fitzgerald, president of Penn Strategies, the city economic development consulting firm paid $200,000 in a two-year contract.

A bill pack is a monthly package of bills approved in one aggregate vote before council.

It may be a matter of the finance department needing a few more bodies working on budgets and ensuring timely payments.

Altoona’s finance department has a budget of $360,000, according to Nichols.

The city’s is $146,000 with three employees, he said. “Our employees must determine the budgeted amount, approve the process and ensure it’s within the city budget,” he said.

The department is preparing to hire another employee by next month, according to Miele.

She said she believes that would help Nichols and staff. She also said the concept of a monthly bill package can be explored, or if it is too overwhelming on the staff, the committee can work with the department on another plan.

“Council is not calling into question anyone in finance as to their professionalism or standards,” Councilman Randall J. Allison said.

“We know by working with them over the years on budgets, specifically, they have worked hard and for the city in a lot of unseen ways,” Allison said. “It is a matter of being brought up to speed on some issues.”

Nichols has provided council with a tracking matrix showing grants that are received, applied for and funding sources for the $25 million East Third Street/Old City Revitalization project.

Council lauded the department for superior work on that end.

City fire officials recently also said the department has been finding it challenging to get the ear of the administration regarding bills to be paid.

Mayor Gabriel J. Campana offered no comment but has said the upcoming proposed budget might require layoffs and outsourcing.