Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
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Audit bill: $115,000

ISLAMORADA -- The probe of village operations and finances completed by the Florida Auditor General's Office in March will cost the town $115,000.

The bill, which the Auditor General's Office submitted on April 20, is $15,000 more than the village budgeted for the item.

Money to cover the gap will come either from the village's cash reserves or, if savings can be found, elsewhere in the budget, Finance Director Maria Aguilar said.

Controversial from the get-go, the state conducted the audit in response to a petition circulated by village residents. More than 10 percent of Islamorada's voters signed the form in late 2010 -- enough to require the probe under Florida law.

Most of the bill, $88,000, was for the time spent by seven state auditors who worked on the probe during two months at Village Hall last summer, and subsequently, back in Tallahassee over the fall and winter. The remainder, $27,000, was for the auditors' travel expenses.

The auditors found 16 problem areas related to a variety of topics, including the village's financial safeguards, procurement practices and property inventorying. However, most of the findings were relatively modest in nature.

The largest findings related to the village's long-delayed wastewater project, including the forfeiture of $10 million in grant funding and the failure to put into use the $1.2 million north Plantation Key reclaimed water system that the town completed in 2006. But those wastewater-related items were already publicly known before auditors came to town.

In an interview last week, Mayor Michael Reckwerdt, who always opposed the audit as an unnecessary expense, once again vented his frustration at the petitioners, who were led by Lower Matecumbe Key resident Sue Miller.

He noted that the petition made no mention that the village would have to pay for the audit. The result, he said, is that people supported it without full knowledge of their signature's implication.

"Do I think that doing it and spending $115,000 on this was worth it? No," Reckwerdt said. "We could have built an affordable house for that. We could have reduced our budget by $100,000. Do you know what kind of stuff we could have done in the park for $100,000?"

In an email after the final audit came out last month, Miller too suggested that Islamorada didn't get its money worth.

"It was our hope that the village would get some ideas from this audit that could be implemented to improve the government functions that are weak," she wrote. "And that isn't likely to happen with this audit."

Unlike Reckwerdt, however, her frustration was directed toward the Auditor General's Office, which she argued did a less-than-thorough job.

There is at least some evidence to support Miller's accusation of superficiality.

For example, among the issues auditors looked into but deemed to be OK was the village's compliance with its own ordinance requiring property owners to hook into the north Plantation Key sewer system. But in reality, as of last month, nearly one third of the 1,171 properties to be serviced by the north Plantation Key system had not connected. The village, meanwhile, had done nothing to enforce six-month mandatory hookup notices, the last of which were issued in October 2009.

Auditors also looked into the $160,000 the village paid former manager Ken Fields at the time of his September 2010 resignation, but concluded that it did not merit mention in the report findings. Fields was awarded the money even though his contract did not provide him with severance in the case of resignation.

Miller questioned the severance's exclusion from the report, pointing out that the Auditor General's Office reached a different conclusion in a 2007 probe of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. In that case, auditors called out the utility for paying a $60,000 severance to its retiring attorney, rather than merely letting the attorney's contract lapse. That payout served no public purpose, they concluded.

Miller accused the state audit team of being most focused on "supporting other state agencies in putting pressure on Islamorada to get the sewers done," rather than investigating village processes.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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