Money in Allegheny County off-book accounts may move

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Allegheny County wants to bring $21.2 million in off-the-books money back into the fold, keeping a closer eye on the type of funds that landed the Pittsburgh police department in trouble earlier this year.

Recognizing the "opportunity for abuse," county Controller Chelsa Wagner said Thursday she is working with county Manager William McKain to move 33 off-book accounts, which are hosted in separate bank accounts and monitored by individual departments, into the county's computer system, where they can be tracked centrally.

"This initiative will give the public greater trust that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and that government departments and officials are accountable for every dollar they spend," Ms. Wagner said. "Not only do these accounts create more opportunity for abuse, but many also have bank fees that exceed those paid for other county accounts."

The Department of Real Estate has the most money in off-book accounts, with more than $8 million in transfer tax revenue and other fees stashed between two bank accounts. It's followed by the civil court records division, which has $7.1 million spread between eight accounts.

Most of the accounts are relics of an earlier age, when the county's cumbersome central accounting system frustrated departments enough to open their own bank accounts for frequently used funds.

Now, nimbler software means there's no reason to maintain separate books, county officials said. And since a slew of row offices were eliminated by voter referendum more than a decade ago, separate accounts are useless.

"This is the last step to fully consolidate the row offices," Mr. McKain said.

The county manager suggested the change to county Executive Rich Fitzgerald at the close of 2012. He's working with Ms. Wagner and county Treasurer John Weinstein to get it done and is looking forward to closing down the many bank fees these smaller accounts have accrued.

Most of the money in these accounts doesn't technically belong to the county and won't appear on the county's budget. In many cases, the accounts hold proceeds from fees and taxes owed to other agencies but are temporarily held in the county's custody.

They're also markedly similar to the Pittsburgh police department's special events account, which collected fees paid by businesses hiring off-duty police officers. Former police Chief Nate Harper has been charged with conspiracy in connection with accusations that he and others funneled $70,000 of those city funds into outside accounts.

No one has found any evidence of wrongdoing in the county's off-book accounts, Mr. McKain said. But the administration might as well deny any potential wrongdoers the chance.

"I think this is good government," he said.

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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