For years, the Allegheny County Department of Public Works was asleep behind the checkbook, waiting six months or more to pay contractors -- and in one case, nearly two years.
On Thursday, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner released an audit of the $30 million-a-year department, criticizing a pattern of late payments, lackluster record-keeping and poor financial planning. Spanning from 2009 to 2011, her review didn't reflect changes made by current county Executive Rich Fitzgerald -- but the department's past bad behavior is hard to ignore.
The audit found that more than half of all reviewed payments paid to contractors were sent at least a month late, a delinquent bill totalling $26.6 million. Another $13.5 million in invoices still weren't paid as of last November, a debt that has prompted numerous calls to the controller's office from angry contractors.
"I became especially concerned since many of the calls are from small businesses in Allegheny County," Ms. Wagner wrote in a statement. "If contractors cannot rely on timely payments for services rendered, then in many cases they are effectively shut out from doing business with the county."
Mindful that he's in an industry that prizes punctuality -- hey, is that bridge ever getting finished? -- public works director Steve Johnson says he's working hard to clear the backlog of invoices.
Starting from the oldest cases and working forward, his staff has closed much of the gap, with $700,000 remaining to be paid from bills arising between 2009 and 2010.
"We're well and away in being caught up," he said.
The audit acknowledges Mr. Johnson inherited a bad situation. For years, county officials took money from capital projects to pay for everyday expenses, pushing back a tax increase but leaving the department perpetually shortchanged.
Auditors also found evidence department officials left money on the table, not bothering to fill out PennDOT paperwork that could have reimbursed 80 percent of a project cost or more.
County officials say they're working to digitize the reimbursement process, making sure no opportunities are missed.
They're also looking to fill long-neglected vacancies. Previous managers suffered a lack of long-term vision, the audit said, partially because they were so busy. At one point, a former public works director also worked as the department's maintenance director; another pair of deputy directors split the former fleet manager's job.
Officials acknowledge public perception is a factor. Few other branches of government are as visible as the Public Works Department, they say. If it runs smoothly, it's a signal to residents that their government is earning its pay.
"People demand good roads," said Jennifer Liptak, Mr. Fitzgerald's chief of staff. "Bridges need to be safe. It's very important that people are getting what they're paying for."
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497. First Published May 23, 2013 1:00 PM