Tri-City Ledger -

By Gretchen McPherson
Ledger Staff 

Grand jury slams Century

Panel says no criminal charges warranted but recommends town sell off all of it’s utility services

 

March 7, 2019



An Escambia County (Fla.) grand jury looking into affairs in the town of Century, ruled criminal charges are not warranted but noted the town is in a state of financial emergency and among other recommendations, said the town should sell the assets of its utility services, sanitation, natural gas, water and sewer to repay money borrowed from restricted funds.

The results addressed the increasing loss of revenue for natural gas, citing an antiquated delivery system that has not been maintained, incorrect or absent meter readings, inadequate or faulty meters and between 25 and 50 customers receiving service without ever being billed.

The report stated that every gas system has generally less than 2 to 3 percent unaccounted gas while Century's was found as recently as 2018 to be 41.9 percent. Unmet qualifications and inexperience of past gas supervisory personnel who may have contributed to the loss was also a concern.

The water and sewer fund had operating losses of $248,652 in 2016 and $217,248 in 2017.

Other findings included payroll checks being cashed and routine bill checks written on accounts without sufficient funds as well as unpaid federal withholding resulted in fines or penalties.

The town has been paying 99 percent of employee's health insurance costs and 78 percent for their families, which contributes to its financial difficulties.

The town's budget for 2017 was $679,857 but ended with actual expenditures of $1,359,964, more than twice the original budget. By the end of 2017, the town owed its Special Revenue Fund $2,700,000, and based on the $300 a month repayment plan the council approved in June 2018, would take 750 years to repay.

Findings and recommendations resulting from the investigation include: the town is in a financial emergency and town officials have shown a clear lack of knowledge and understanding as to the operations of a governmental organization; the current administration have failed to prepare and approve a realistic, financially solvent budget; administration and council have improperly borrowed gas tax account and Local Option Sales Tax account funds; lack of accountability among the mayor, supervisors and employees; the mayor has failed to follow proper procedure when approving the use of town equipment and manpower on private property; that Century sell the assets of its utility services, sanitation, natural gas, water and sewer and use the proceeds to repay the amounts borrowed from the restricted fund; amendments to the town charter or ordinances to provide the town be solely responsible for roads, parks and land use programs; that the State Auditor General's Office forensic financial audits be done for the past five years and findings referred to the appropriate agencies and third party professional services be audited; that Century seek the assistance of a municipal consulting firm to assist in the development of policies and procedures and include an operational audit; all loans by Century be listed clearly on appropriate financial statements and no person who has an outstanding loan be able to run for any Century public office; all contracts be reviewed and amended as necessary and have appropriate expiration dates; additional training on the Sunshine Law and public records; funds to be spent and their limitations be clearly allocated and approved; the State of Florida and Escambia County investigate the misappropriation of gas tax and Local Option Sales Tax funds; and that spending restrictions be placed on any funds provided by outside governmental entities that are not otherwise limited in their use with prior approval obtained by the town before the funds are spent and that funds provided by the county to the town to spend should be reviewed by the county.

Century Mayor Henry Hawkins said if the town followed the grand jury's recommendation to sell the assets of its utilities, including sanitation, natural gas, water and sewer, the town might as well shut its door.

“That's not going to be my recommendation,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins also said he felt the grand jury report was very one-sided and disregarded facts sent to them.

Hawkins said the trend of losing natural gas customers has been a problem for a while and began long before he became mayor.

“Due to the prices of gas, many people switched to electricity,” he said.

He also questions the figures that show the town is losing natural gas. The grand jury report said in 2018 41.9 percent of the natural gas purchased by the town was unaccounted for.

Hawkins also questioned the accuracy of the figures.

“We don't know if that's accurate,” Hawkins said. “We don't know how much gas we are getting because it's not metered so we have no way to verify how much we receive,”

He also said a report in 2008 showed the town sold more natural gas than it had purchased. He said the first step is to install a meter to know exactly how much gas the town of Century purchases from BP Energy.

Hawkins also said the town found at least 50 natural gas customers who were not being billed. He added the town will also follow through with installing new gas meters to get an accurate number on how much gas is being sold.

“If we're not selling what's going out, we don't know what's going on,” he said. “We are starting at zero and begin cross training everybody. Back in the day the gas system was the cash cow.”

Hawkins said once the new meters are installed the town will get an accurate picture of how much gas it buys and how much it sells.

“I'm not surprised by the results, it's kind of what we expected,” said Century Councilman Ben Boutwell. “My opinion is, I feel it was the truth. It's like I've talked about in the past, the transparency for the town, workers, administration and the council needs to be there. We've got a lot we need to accomplish for this town. The infrastructure is the big one. We've got to stop spending. I agree with everything you see in there. It's sad, but it's the truth.”

“I think we are working in the right direction of working our infrastructure,” said Boutwell. “It's a common sense approach. If we don't have money, you don't spend it. It's about what we need, wants are gone now. This is a business that we are in. We can't take something personal. If you bring something to the table, and the majority say no, it is what it is. But we also have to bring something to the community that is going help our town. That's the things I believe. I don't like this power struggle that I hear. We've got five council members and a mayor and we should be working together.”

“The council hasn't had an opportunity to develop a plan so at the next council meeting, thats what I plan to do is to discuss it and make some proposals for addressing the grand jury's report,” said Century Council President Ann Brooks. “I think that some of the fundings are true. I think we need an operational audit, that's one of the things I will pursue, making that happen. I've felt for quite some time we needed to sell our gas department. The water, the sewer and the garbage are not losing, unless you consider what they are having to put into the gas fund to keep it going. I think the gas department is what we need to look at first as far as getting rid of any utilities. I'll be working on some things to suggest to the council when we have our nest meeting.”

The next council meeting will be at 7 p.m., Monday, March 18, at Century Town Hall.

 
 

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