Port Authority cited for retirement issue

EAST LIVERPOOL – The Columbiana County Port Authority has been cited by the state because a former member continued to serve on the board after officially retiring from the position, resulting in him being improperly compensated.

The citation was included in a routine state audit of the port authority’s books for 2012, the results of which were released this month. The citation likely came as no surprise since the problem became public in October 2013, when former board member Stephen Cooper agreed to reimburse the port authority $17,100.

The $17,100 is what Cooper was improperly compensated for continuing to serve on the port authority from March 2011, when his retirement took effect, until Dec. 31, 2012, when his board term expired. He was not reappointed by county commissioners.

A longtime port authority member, Cooper decided in early 2011 to retire from the board while continuing to serve, which is allowed, but only if the person steps down and officially retires for at least two months before being reappointed or rehired. Since Cooper’s retirement occurred in the middle of his four-year term, the proper procedure for him would have been to resign and be reappointed two months later by commissioners, which he failed to do.

Cooper’s failure to follow procedures resulted in him being improperly compensated for the period he remained on the board during his retirement, which came to $17,100. He has repaid the money in full.

According to the state, neither the port authority board nor county commissioners were aware Cooper had retired until January 2013, when Commissioner Jim Hoppel found out and alerted port authority CEO Tracy Drake that there might be a problem.

When a government employee covered by the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System retires but takes another government job covered by OPERS, a “notice of re-employment” form must be filed by the employer. The audit stated such a form was filed by the port authority indicating the proper public notice had been given.

“This form was certified by the port authority’s manager of administration and finance, not a port board member or county commissioner,” stated the audit. The manager at the time was Sandy Steele, who retired at the end of 2013.

At the conclusion of the citation, the state said the matter will be referred to OPERS as well as the county prosecutor. County Prosecutor Robert Herron, who was unaware of the audit, indicated these types of referrals are often a matter of protocol, but he preferred withholding comment until speaking with the auditor’s office and OPERS.

“I would like to talk to them before I make any further comment,” Herron said.

As for OPERS, communications manager Julie Graham-Price indicated they were satisfied with resolution of the situation since the money repaid by Cooper included $2,100 that would have been improperly paid into OPERS on his behalf while Cooper was retired.

The state audit also cited the port authority:

– For failing to first obtain purchase orders to certify the funds are available before making a purchase.

– For having incomplete financial records and failing to maintain financial statements and notes in accordance with applicable accounting standards.