Sunday, September 23, 2018
News Roundup

Critical audit triggers questions over school impact fee payments in Pasco

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County sent nearly $5.2 million to the county school district during the first half of the 2016 fiscal year in impact fee payments collected on new residential construction.

Now, district officials wonder if they received everything to which they were entitled.

The question comes in the wake of a critical audit of the county's central permitting department that found incomplete or missing documentation needed to verify school impact fee payments, a lack of internal controls and personnel failing to follow the county's own land development code.

Better controls and policies would "reduce the risk of fraud, waste and abuse of … resources,'' stated the May 2 audit from Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Paula S. O'Neil.

O'Neil's office presented the audit on May 23 to county commissioners, who voted to accept the report with little comment.

"It was concerning, for sure,'' commission Chairman Mike Moore said in a later interview.

The audit covered a five-month period ending March 31, 2016, and occurred as the county switched its computer software to a new system, known as Accela, for issuing and tracking building permit activity.

"I was concerned about it,'' Olga Swinson, the school district's chief financial officer, said about the audit. "It was pretty — wow. It kind of reflected what we've been going through.''

What they've been going through, according to a June 1 letter from Swinson to O'Neil, are problems trying to account for impact fee payments received from the county with corresponding residential building permits since the county moved to Accela in April 2016. Swinson's letter said the school district no longer receives a monthly electronic report from central permitting, gets tardy information and "discovered significant differences in these records'' in trying to reconcile permits to payments.

During the audit period, the county issued 888 permits for new residential construction tied to school impact fee payments. Auditors from O'Neil's Inspector General's Office reviewed 269 files, or 30 percent of those permits, and found:

• The permitting department was tardy in submitting information to the clerk's financial services department, which meant electronic fund transfers to the school district were not timely. Under the county's own ordinance, impact fees collections must be forwarded to the district by the following month.

• Almost all of the impact fee calculation forms did not reflect who prepared or checked those figures. The county said a development review technician prepared the initial calculation and a second technician would verify its accuracy. Three files did not include the required calculation forms.

• Seventy-five permit files, or more than a quarter of those audited, indicated impact fees had been paid, according to the Accela system, but there were no receipts found in the files.

• Information in the county's computer software did not match the data on the issued permit. In some instances, Accela showed the work had been coded as a new single-family home, but the physical permit showed it was issued for a multi-family residence and the impact fee had been calculated accordingly.

Multifamily units are charged a school impact fee of $1,855, nearly $3,000 less than the assessment for a new single-family detached home.

• One permit file, No. 890485, could not be located, so the auditors could not review the supporting documentation. According to Accela, the permit was issued for a Lennar Homes-built single-family house in Hudson.

• In two instances, the county staff issued certificates of occupancy — the legal document allowing someone to move into a new home — before impact fees had been paid, contrary to the county's own codes. The fees were later paid. The county said the premature certificates were isolated incidents during implementation of the Accela system.

The audit results come amid a public debate on a Pasco School Board request to significantly increase the impact fees to build new schools. Commission hearings on the request are scheduled for June 20 and July 11.

"In every application and in every industry, when you're using technology, there's that opportunity for error,'' said Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. "But it would be unfortunate if the school district is not getting 100 percent of that money that we as an industry are paying in good faith.

"Hopefully, the county (permitting) department can work with the appropriate regulatory community and get these things fixed quickly so there are better controls in place.''

Moore said he was confident County Administrator Dan Biles and his leadership team would rectify the problems. Moore and O'Neil both noted that the impact fee payments to the school district in the 2016 fiscal year totaled more than $10 million, beyond the amount the district had projected.

"The money's there, obviously,'' said Moore. "But the tracking is not being utilized properly or there needs to be a better system in place to make sure those reports are timely. This needs to be taken care of.''

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