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Refunds take bite out of West Mifflin Area School District budget

| Friday, Feb. 11, 2011

Tax reimbursements in the West Mifflin Area School District are expected take a $425,000 chunk out of the district's budget.

At a school board workshop meeting Thursday, district business manager Dennis Cmar said successful tax appeals by mostly commercial businesses have resulted in the district having to pay back $751,000 it collected in the current fiscal year.

Of that, most is owed to Century III Mall, which is to receive $617,000 back in overpaid taxes.

Cmar said the district has $326,000 in escrow that it will apply to the overpaid taxes, but “the rest is all unbudgeted.”

“It has a big impact, naturally,” Cmar said.

Picking up on a discussion that began at a meeting last month, board members continued to talk about the need for a private audit of district finances from 2004-10.

Board member Diana Olasz called for such an audit at a January meeting in response to an audit report that showed a $3.1 million deficit for the 2009-10 school year.

Olasz noted Thursday that other information has been circulated that put the deficit at up to $9 million, and that a detailed audit is needed.

Attorney Gary Matta from the district's soliciting firm Dodaro Matta & Cambest said he is in contact with a number of auditing firms about the matter and is gathering information about the scope and cost of such a financial examination.

“If money was not an issue, you would want it to be as detailed as possible,” said Matta, who is a former state auditor.

But because cost is an issue to the district, he said the board may be better off to go with a general audit at first and then proceed with a more detailed examination of specific areas of school finances based on the outcome of the initial report.

Matta said he would report to the board on the matter at its March meeting.

In other matters, resident Diane Stanesic chastised board members for overlooking expenditures by the district's former superintendent, the late Patrick Risha, that were outlined in a recent media report.

The report claimed Risha charged the school system $9,249 for meals while he was head of the district between November 2006 and November 2009.
It said some of the meals were charged at fast food restaurants near Risha's home in Rostraver Township, while others were charged at restaurants in West Mifflin.

Board officials in response said they never received detailed reports on how the superintendent was spending district money.

“When you're approving bills for payment, the back-up bills should always be there,” Stanesic said.

She said the district should follow the lead of businesses in the private sector, which don't allow executive officers to sign off on their own expenses, as Risha apparently had been permitted to do on his own spending.

Stanesic also said blame for the oversight also needed to be put on Cmar for not providing copies of the superintendent's bills to the school board.

School board president Kathleen Bracco said the school district will be looking at its policies on expense reimbursements and changing provisions that allowed the superintendent to approve his own expenses.

Bracco said board member Albert Graham is reviewing the policies of West Mifflin and other school districts to “tighten up and make sure it doesn't happen again.”

Bracco acknowledged she hadn't reviewed the receipts until the information about the former superintendent's spending recently came to light. During the meeting she suggested there wasn't a lot that the board could do about the past reimbursements.

“Mr. Risha is dead. We can't very well dig up his body and ask him questions now,” she said.

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