Sunday, December 19, 2010

The week in review...

It must be the time of year, but I found myself involved in all sorts of activities this week - many of which were Lake Worth related, but just didn't have the time for updates here on the blog.  So, be prepared for a longer than usual post on the goings-on.  Here and there you will pick up some tidbits that are downright disturbing.  See if you can pick them out.

Last week, I made it a point to put the Tuesday morning City Commission work session on my calendar.  I wasn't sure what all I would attend at first.  When the day came, for some reason I was up early and decided to take in as much of the show as I could.  I arrived at City Hall a little before 8 a.m. and nestled down in one of the comfy pews there for the next three and a half hours.

Audit Committee

The first order of business was the City Commission meeting as the Audit Committee.  It turns out that the City Commission itself is the Audit Committee.  Now we also have the Finance Advisory Board (FAB) that appears to be in a state of limbo at the moment.  And we also have the mandate, my interpretation at least, for an Internal Auditor that works at the pleasure of the City Commission - in the same way as the City Manager and City Attorney do.  This is what the City Charter says about the required Internal Auditor position:

City Charter - Article 1
Sec. 4. - Form of government.
The form of government of the City of Lake Worth shall be known as the "commission-manager plan." The city commission shall constitute the governing body with powers as hereinafter provided to pass ordinances, adopt resolutions and policies and appoint a chief administrative officer to be known as the "city manager," and to exercise all other powers hereinafter provided, or conferred by law.
Elective and appointive officers.
The elective officers under this charter shall be the mayor and the members of the city commission.
The appointive officers shall be the city manager, city attorney, internal auditor, city clerk, police chief, fire chief, and such other officers as may be provided for by ordinance. Any of the above officers which are, or may become, under civil service shall be subject to civil service regulations. All of the appointive officers under the charter, except the city manager, city attorney, and internal auditor shall be appointed by the city manager and all appointive officers shall hold office subject to provisions of law.

City Charter - Article III
Sec. 7. - Other appointed officials.

The city commission shall have the power to employ and retain engineers, auditors, attorneys and other professional advisors and consultants. The city commission shall have the power to create and abolish all offices except those created herein, and fix and determine the authority, duties and compensation of all appointed officers and employees.
During the adoption process of the current fiscal year budget, the City Commission confirmed that it didn't need an Internal Auditor, after getting a weak opinion from the City Attorney that the position was not required according to the City Charter.  This is consistent with one of City Manager Stanton's early decisions to not renew our Internal Auditor contract since they didn't need anyone else raising more questions.  Let alone the fact that our independent audit of the City's annual financial report uncovered numerous exceptions and conditions needing correction over the past several years - all of which seem to perennially appear on the next audit.

First let me say that there was no discussion about the position of Internal Auditor at this meeting.  It was simply a presentation by TCBA Watson about the upcoming audit they are contracted to do for the city.  Apparently they did some early work in September that was termed an "interim audit" which included some tests of the payroll system and direct deposit arrangements.  The auditors seemed to stress the importance this year of injecting some unpredictability into their process.  There are a series of standards related to establishing what "independence" means as it relates to the relationship between the auditor and the city.  The audit firm cannot have other business with the city and likewise there can be no familial relationships between members of the firm and the city.  Essentially, a "firewall" is built between the preparation of the city's financial statements and the auditors.  The auditors depend on federal interpretations about independence, as well as principles of their own accounting profession.  There are sometimes when the two conflict and for some odd reason, the federal government has interpreted that if an auditor makes a material finding, that conflicts with their independent role.  Looked at objectively, one would say that is why they are hired in the first place and such an interpretation would tend to discourage reporting of material findings.  The auditors thought that this interpretation was subject to revision and that they would rely on their professional accounting principles to not be crippled by this ruling.

They will be using and examining the city's IT systems.  One of the areas that they want to place focus on is where vendors may have "unusual relationships" with the city in the way of having someone associated with a vendor also being on the payroll.  Funny they should be bringing this issue up at this point in time due to the relationship between REG and our new Planning and Preservation Administrator.

The audit, when complete, makes its way to the state's Auditor General, who is the ultimate authority.  The auditors must identify whether the city meets any of the 14 standards necessary for the declaration of a financial emergency.  If a city meets 3 of the 14 standards for an emergency, the city can be put on a "watch list."  Apparently, the city is NOT on that watch list now.  The bulk of the actual audit will take place from mid-February through mid-March, with a presentation to the Audit Committee (also the City Commission) at the end of March.

Some of the questions posed by the Commission were revealing.  Vice Mayor Suzanne Mulvehill commented about the need to look at the whole utility billing process and that we cannot have a situation where an employee was involved in double-billing and pocketing cash payments made on some accounts - apparently someone was caught and let go recently for doing just that.  She also made a point to determine whether the city's collection agency - some people that are usually "in the know" were told by those who would be in a position to know that the city didn't have a collection agency for delinquent accounts - was living up to collecting what they said that they were collecting and if the city was getting all the money it deserved from collections.  Commissioner McVoy admitted that he "was not a financial wizard" and suggested a simple report card at the end of the audit that would grade the city's performance in a number of different areas of the audit.

Finance Director Steve Carr indicated that many of the "exceptions" found on previous audits would continue through this years audit.  It seems that many of the comments relate to the city's fixed asset inventory and the control system for the city's fixed asset is in "disarray."  He said that there is a 1300 page inventory of the city's fixed assets.  Thus ended the Audit Committee meeting.

Work Session
 - City's Regional Sewer System and East Central Water Reclamation facility.
I was all juiced up for this one as I thought we were going to hear about the city's client municipalities' lawsuit against the city for improper billing.  Well, such was not the case.  The only inkling that attorneys are raking in the fees on this one came from a discussion generated as a result of the presentation which indicated that our customers (the ones that hold the city in low regard) cannot easily switch to be a customer of another owner of the Regional Sewer System.  If you look at page five of the presentation, the owners are all identified.  Owners of the majority of the capacity would have to be in favor of any change and reallocation of capacity.  The owners are very protective of their own available and unused capacity as that represents the potential for future growth.  The gist of the presentation was a review of the facility, new legislative requirements and regulations and the need for an expansion of the system to meet these new requirements.  This can be funded when current debt is retired and new debt is incurred in the coming years.

The City Commission had questions about available gray water and none is currently available for use by Lake Worth through this system.  Home-based gray water uses are highly regulated by the state building code and are generally thought to be prohibitive in cost and equipment for individual home applications.  It doesn't sound like that will be an option anytime soon.  It just seemed to me that the city - those officials represented on the dais, elected and appointed, were pleased with this situation as it left the city's customers with little recourse.  Message being sent to local governments and others all over south Florida - beware of dealing with Lake Worth and avoid doing so if you can at all costs.

Casino Building Rehabilitation Project

Next up was the item I was most interested in and the main reason why I set this morning aside to attend the City Commission workshop.  Click here for part of the package submitted to the Planning and Zoning Board for review.  Drawings at 95% complete will be available after the first part of January.  The project will be presented to the Planning and Zoning Board for their review and approval at their January 5, 2011 meeting - this will then go to the City Commission in February.  Total leasable square footage is 12,363 on the first floor and 13,056 on the second floor.  These includes areas that are outdoor that can be leased for short or long term purposes if the city decides to do so.  Permitting is expected to take place in April and May of 2011 with groundbreaking in June of 2011.

One of the most surprising parts of the presentation was that the issuance of a "red tag" by the villainized former building official reaps a substantial benefit for the city in that the improvements identified as part of the red tag will not count in the overall budget for rehabilitation.  Thus more can be done without triggering the imposition of current code standards, subjecting the project to much higher costs.  Savings from this were plowed into building systems that contribute to the LEED certification rating for the building.  There is room for installation of photo-voltaic panels on the roof, but the panels are not included in the budget.  They are looking into the possibility of a loan/lease or pilot program with a manufacturer of solar panels given the high-visibility of this project.  The building as rehabilitated is 3,500 square larger than its existing footprint.  A cistern for water storage has been explored, but it's thought that it wouldn't provide enough benefit to make sense for the entire building.  They are exploring the possibility of looking into the pool and perhaps a re-design of it would be possible for use as a cistern.  There might be money out there from the state for documentation of the building's history and explaining the use of green building features - this is something that could be done afterwards and would not count towards building rehabilitation costs.  There is a grant that has been applied for the interpretive signage that would point out environmental aspects of the coastal location and other site improvements that use or promote environmentally sensitive aspects of the project.  Higher ranking LEED certification will be dependent on the provision of mass transit to the site.  The team is 80% sure of the structural qualities of the building but will not be 100% sure until demolition begins.

My capsulized assessment:  The team has done some good work, but I have a major problem with the switching of hats by the project manager to a city staff person in charge of review of the site plan as explained in a previous post.  I believe the city is exposed by improving the building, expanding the building and introducing new uses (catering) that do not meet the former Comprehensive Plan future land use designation of Public Recreation and Open Space.  Remember, the city's current Comprehensive Plan - the one that was updated with Evaluation and Appraisal Report recommendations - is still not-in-compliance according to the Department of Community Affairs.  This quick switch from preparer to reviewer will help ensure that this point is not delved into too deeply, if at all.  I also don't think permitting by the various agencies will necessairy be a walk in the park.  I have also heard from reliable sources that the "selective demolition" will surprise many by its extent.  Maybe those that attended the Circle of Light demonstration can join me there after the "selective demolition" to inspect how much of the building is actually left.  The information regarding how the issuance of the red tag helped out the project is indicative of the importance of professional objectivity and how, even if something is politically unpopular, professionals must still be allowed to do their job.  This is something that the city could learn to do throughout the organization and then become more responsive to the public - an less influnced by prevailing political winds.

Other things heard during the week:
There was an e-mail exchange between a business owner on Lucerne and the city manager about the lack of holiday lights along Lucerne Avenue.  The city manager suggested that the business decorate its own street tree in front of the business only to be told by the business owner that they have done that before and code enforcement told them they couldn't do it and that it would have to come down.  There were other things contained in the communication that were really not called for in official city correspondence.  Let's just leave it at that.  The point here is that Lucerne is as much of a downtown commercial area main street as Lake Avenue and should be equally covered by any holiday display - or other decorations throughout the year for that matter.

Joan Oliva, executive director of the CRA, was treated to a tirade of orchestrated complaints at the Tuesday night CRA meeting.  The topic concerned renewal of her contract for employment.  By the way, the NSP2 Grant ($23 million) covers 75% of her salary.  The new reason to say "NO" is that the city doesn't have any money for raises or anything else for that matter - how can we fight our battle with the unions if we act like we have money to spend?  After the grilling, the CRA finally came around and approved a 5% increase.  The packed house proved that a "certain someone" can still rally the troops and fill the chamber if need be.

I heard that Annabeth Karson approached applicants for a sports bar on 10th Avenue west of I-95 after their presentation to the Planning and Zoning Board saying that she is aware some of the city commission may have problems with their project.  She said that she could help them as she has good contacts with the city commission.  Just think - Ms. Karson, Lobbyist - has a ring to it doesn't it?

There seems to be a lot of misinformation about the use of the City Hall Annex and what will be happening with the City's museum.  Seems that there are discussions going on about having the Palm Beach County Historical Society take over the running of the museum - not Palm Beach County as reported by the other blogger.  The discussions surround the possible leasing of the building or part of the building to the Historic Society - which would pay part of their lease up-front in cash - something that the city urgently needs.  Misinformation about the "giving away" of the building has reached the City Manager and others - one can almost hear the door shutting on this opportunity before it has time to ripen.

That's all for now.  More later.