Bull in a China Shop Undeterred by Early Staff Troubles, Erie's New Comptroller Makes Headway By Michael R. Caputo

Before the paint was dry on his new office nameplate, Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw took fire for hiring a Chief of Staff from political ranks. Days later, the same employee resigned for an undisclosed DWI. This was an inauspicious start for a new Comptroller many of us hoped would search for taxpayers' savings like a bull in a china shop. Forget the politics; push past the bureaucrats. Break a few dishes if necessary.

Behind the headlines, he was.

When Mychajliw walked into work his first day in office, he discovered a potential cash deficit of more than $30 million and didn't have enough money to pay County bills. Within days, he hammered out an agreement with Erie County Medical Center to delay a $15 million payment that was due. For all intents and purposes, the County was broke and couldn't pay up.

One week later, Mychajliw's office projected that in order for Erie County to pay its bills in 2013 it would have to borrow $110 million - a huge sum not seen since the Red/Green Budget crisis.

Mychajliw sounded the alarm again and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz's administration was put on notice.

Now in his third week in office, Mychajliw's breakneck pace continues. He has already completed his first audit - the Office of Erie County Comptroller, his own house. The Buffalo News scratched the surface of that audit today.

"I'm going to root out inefficiency, waste and abuse across Erie County government," Mychajliw told PoliticsNY.net. "The Office of Comptroller needs to set the bar high for other County departments and lead by example, so we scrutinized our own office first. I don't think there's a better way to show leadership than to show my own office is not an exception."

By many accounts, outgoing Comptroller David Shenk left the place a mess.

A Certified Public Accountant has not been in charge as Deputy Comptroller for Audit since 2006. Nobody could find an annual Audit Plan that mapped out the year for auditors and set specific benchmarks on when work needed to be done. The office's audit manual was from the Ice Age, annual reviews and evaluations were not done for workers and the number of staff was gutted over the years.

"Our current staff did their best under tough circumstances," Mychajliw said. "Keep in mind, there was no Erie County Comptroller for two months last year and no Deputy Comptroller for Audit for four months. I'm sure that had a very negative impact."

Without an organized Annual Audit Plan or benchmarks for performance, Comptroller staff told Mychajliw they were marched into the office, handed an assignment to audit, and that was it. To improve that process, the new Comptroller hired a private sector CPA, Terry Fraas - the first CPA to lead the Audit Division since 2006.

Another remarkable and long overdue first: Frass is also the first woman ever to serve in that vital position. She has already created an Audit Plan for 2013 and will create written departmental policies and procedures.

Good thing: for all of 2012, there were just three audits and three reviews. Of those audits, two were finished at the last minute. One was filed on New Years Eve; the other was completed on December 28th, 2012.

According to sources, the finance side of the department was also in bad shape. Junior clerical workers were forced to do the work of accountants. Many jobs were never filled. Even worse, there was no bench of younger workers qualified for promotion into more senior jobs when experienced employees hit the road.

In fact, nine out of 11 key accounting employees are eligible to retire within the next five years.

"It is downright scary to think what would happen if there were mass retirements or if the vital senior employees were to leave," Mychajliw said. "I asked to review the office succession plan - there was none. So we've got a problem: we must solidify the long-term integrity of the office to protect taxpayers. That's a challenge I didn't expect, but we're addressing it."

Mychajliw also proposed an efficiency plan to stop what amounts to secretaries performing vital accounting work. Vacant positions were eliminated and professional accountants are being added. That kind of reorganization can be costly, but taxpayers will actually save a little more than $4,000.

"Erie County families in this tough economy must tighten their belts and do more with less. The Office of Comptroller will do the same," Mychajliw said. "We're reducing the cost of doing business while still strengthening our staff. And we're moving forward with an aggressive audit plan aimed at cutting spending in other departments as well."

Sources tell PoliticsNY.net another audit is on tap that will raise some eyebrows on how Erie County taxpayers' money is spent.

So, the bull in the china shop is off and running through Erie County government. Mychajliw would not reveal what department is next under his microscope, but at least he broke dishes in his own office first.

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