BELLEAIR BEACH — The mystery of $17,500 missing from city financial records for the past four years is now the subject of a major investigation by the city's auditor.
At issue is an apparently unpaid November 2006 garbage collection bill. Solving the mystery could affect how and when the city will seek a new contract.
City officials do not know if the 2006 past due bill claimed by Waste Management was really owed or if it was ever paid.
Here is what the city has discovered so far:
The city budget for waste collection services for 2006 matches the actual amount paid out that year to Waste Management, the city's garbage collector for more than a decade.
In 2007, bills from Waste Management began showing an outstanding unpaid balance of $17,500. City officials could find no invoice matching the amount the company said it was owed.
When questioned, the company assured city officials that there was no unpaid balance and that payments were up to date.
The following year, when the unpaid balance continued to appear on monthly invoices, the city sent a certified letter to Waste Management, again inquiring about the unpaid balance showing on the bills, but got no response.
The current three-year garbage collection contract expires at the end of September and the city is determined to resolve the issue before it makes any decision on future service.
"We pay our bills," said City Manager Nancy Gonzalez.
Now, in an apparent effort to persuade the city to renew its contract, Waste Management has given the city two options: If the city renews the contract for two years, the company will ask for only half of the $17,500 to be paid; or, if the city signs a new four-year contract, the company will completely forgive the past due amount.
Alternatively, if the city decides to go out to bid to consider rival garbage collection services, Waste Management wants the disputed unpaid bill paid in full, even if it wins the bidding process.
This year, the city is scheduled to pay $219,240 to Waste Management for garbage collection.
Residents utilizing the service are billed bimonthly by the city through Pinellas County Utility bills: $38.20 for single family homes; $25.55 for multifamily complexes that use regular garbage cans; and $30.55 for multifamily complexes using Dumpster services
The rates have been in place since 2007 and were previously raised in 2006 and 2005, according to Gonzalez.
Normally, the city would have started renegotiating the garbage collection contract several months ago.
Instead, city officials met with Waste Management officials in an effort to solve the mystery.
Gonzalez went back over the city's financial records, finding only that no invoice or payment existed for November 2006.
Earlier this month, the City Council authorized Gonzalez to bring in the city's auditor to conduct a further investigation.
"Personally, I think we get good service, probably the best service we have ever had," said Mayor Lynn Rives. "We need to find out if we owe or don't owe the $17,500. We need to resolve that."
"I don't want to be responsible for a $17,500 debt in this economy. The money was allocated. If the bill was not paid, where did it go? I am concerned we are being held hostage over payment. Maybe we should go out to bid on the project so we can say we've done everything and that we are above board," council member Stan Sofer said.
Gonzalez stressed Friday she does not believe any current or former city employees misappropriated the missing $17,500.
"Do I think someone took the money? Absolutely not," she said.
What she does believe is the long-standing dispute over a missing invoice and a missing payment must be finally resolved.