by Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PORT ORANGE -- New eyes will address an old problem.
As city staff is in the process of fixing water-billing processes and replacing faulty water meters, the City Council began looking for a firm to conduct a forensic audit of the city's water utility to determine what other problems exist and how to correct them.
City leaders were expected to begin interviewing representatives this week from five firms. All five of the finalists are based in Florida, although the city received proposals from firms in Rochester, N.Y. and Portland, Maine, too.
"We are in the process of addressing these issues ... it's going to be resolved," Mayor Allen Green said about the ongoing water billing problem in his annual state of the city address. Those issues include internal control processes that failed to account for a charge to wholesale water customers in Daytona Beach Shores, as well as water meters that report no consumption or do not report at all.
The forensic audit differs from a recent investigation of the water billing issues, which City Manager Ken Parker said was focused more on what went wrong as it related to personnel.
That investigation, conducted by the independent auditor Moore, Stephens and Lovelace, was criticized by city leaders and some citizens, resulting in City Council dismissing the Winter Park-based firm's proposal to conduct the forensic audit.
The investigation found the finance department did not have formal processes for reviewing customer account profiles, billing registers and changes to rate tables that calculate water billing rates. The auditor recommended bills be checked for accuracy and signed off by city staff. The investigation also concluded finance director John Shelley and customer service manager Betty Barnhart were responsible for the problems. Mr. Shelley and Ms. Barnhart recently retired.
Councilman Bob Ford said the investigation told the city "everything we knew existed, and nothing else. That's not what I'm looking for."
Vice Mayor Don Burnette said he only would have considered interviewing representatives from Moore Stephens and Lovelace as a baseline that would set the standard for interviews with other applicants.
"I'm not in love with the idea of interviewing (Moore Stephens and Lovelace) to hire them, unless they pulled a rabbit out of their hat while we were interviewing them," the vice mayor said.
Mr. Parker's decision to allow Mr. Shelley and Ms. Barnhart to retire with additional compensation for unused sick leave instead of terminating them also was criticized.
Ted Noftall, a concerned citizen, contrasted Mr. Shelley and Ms. Barnhart retiring "quietly" to the firing of former public works director Warren Pike, who lost his job in February 2012 after it was discovered his teenage son was stealing thousands of dollars worth of city-owned property.
"We have heard nothing in terms of an explanation as to why that was allowed," Mr. Noftall said, referring to the retirements. "These people cost the city millions. Pike maybe cost the city $2,500. There has been absolutely no justice served. There has also not been any investigation worth the paper it was written on."
Following Mr. Shelley's retirement, city staff addressed the need for a new finance director -- at least temporarily.
Former Clermont city manager Wayne Saunders was hired as interim finance director. Mr. Saunders, a finalist for the city manager's position, impressed city leaders for his background in finance, which includes service as Clermont's finance director and an accountant for the city of Leesburg.
Meanwhile, city leaders plan to continue discussions with water meter manufacturer Sensus on a plan that would replace the manufacturer's meters that are under warranty.