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ACCOUNTING PRACTICES PROMPT QUERIES

Erie County legislators are demanding answers from the county's Department of Public Works after an audit criticized the department's accounting and borrowing practices over the past decade.

An explanation of the practices as far back as 1991 will be sought at a hearing on the issue, said Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, who sparked the Legislature's investigation.

"It's not that we want to pick everything apart. But we've got to follow the rules of the road here," said Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, a member of the Legislature's Finance and Management Committee.

"I just want to make sure someone is paying attention," she said.

According to the audit, conducted by county Comptroller Nancy A. Naples' staff, the Public Works Department has used improper accounting methods for 10 years, particularly for projects involving federal and state aid. Naples' report on the audit, which covered the years from 1991 to 2000, was released in December.

Public Works Commissioner Maria C. Lehman, a top official in the administration of Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra, took over as commissioner in January 2000.

Lehman said the department has "totally cleaned up the books" in the past year.

"Things were done differently (in the past) for a lot of different reasons," said Lehman, an engineer who worked at one of the area's leading private firms before taking the county job.

A possible solution to the department's chronic problems would involve hiring a contract administrator in the Highway Department, Lehman said.

That would shift some accounting duties from engineers to a financial professional, she said.

A request for such a position probably will go to the Legislature soon, possibly by the end of the month, Lehman said.

In the department's defense, Lehman also said that projects involving state and federal aid are complex because of the overlapping layers of government.

The various components of a major project usually move on their own time lines, another factor that complicates accounting practices, she said.

As an example, Lehman cited a recent road project that the department planned to begin in December.

But the state returned the necessary contracts only this week and only after repeated requests, she said.

"In the meantime, 28 things have changed, and you have to go back and change all kinds of things on the contract itself," Lehman said. "It's not a neat process."

The Legislature might investigate the matter as early as Thursday, during a meeting of the Finance and Management Committee.

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