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Dunedin ex-commissioner says efforts to find $2.2 million utility revenue leak rebuffed

DUNEDIN — After the recent discoveries of two utility billing errors that cost the city $2.2 million over the past seven years, one resident now says he was suspicious all along — former Mayor Bob Hackworth.

Hackworth was a commissioner in 2004 when he began to ask why, after the city approved utility rate increases in years prior, extra revenue didn't materialize.

But City Manager Rob DiSpirito told commissioners recently that some of that increase wasn't being billed at all. Simple rate change errors in utility billing in 2002 and 2003 undercharged commercial users of stormwater, water and sewer lines across the city for years, he said.

Those errors should have been found much sooner, Hackworth said. But when he discussed his concerns with auditors, fellow commissioners and city finance officials, he said, he was met with only doubt and disinterest.

"It was fairly clear that there was a problem. The question didn't get answered until seven years later, by accident," Hackworth said. "We're all responsible, including me. But clearly I was onto it but just couldn't get to the bottom of it."

City officials, past and present, aren't so sure.

They say there's no way of knowing whether Hackworth's inquiry, if followed to conclusion, would have discovered the problem, described by DiSpirito as hidden in the city's utility billing. Some said Hackworth's dredging up of 5-year-old e-mails, with questions he kept mute about during his years as mayor, is counterproductive when compared with the city's ongoing audits.

"Everyone's going to have their opinion," said Debra Kynes, a city commissioner during Hackworth's initial questioning. "I would say it's time to let go of 'would have, could have, should have,' to move on and find an equitable solution."

E-mails supplied to the St. Petersburg Times show conversations, starting in May 2004, between Hackworth and several officials no longer in city employment, including former finance director Sandy Sanders and former City Manager John Lawrence.

Most were copied to the City Commission, made up then of Dave Eggers, now mayor; Julie Scales, now vice mayor; Kynes; and late former Mayor John Doglione.

In them, Hackworth asks for utility records, presses for explanations and cites evidence that he says contradicts suggestions that rainy weather, low utility use or increased expenses could account for the missing money.

Some of his inquiries took on a combative tone. Hackworth, in memos to Lawrence, called his replies "inapt, incomplete and disinterested" and said he held him accountable for "misstatements, misrepresentations and mismanagement."

Hackworth's three months of questioning didn't help uncover the errors, a shortcoming he blames on the lack of support he received from City Hall.

Board of Finance chairman Jack Norton wrote in June 2004, based on meetings with city staff, that "we know what happened, we fixed it and we moved on."

Sanders, in a memo to Hackworth a month later, wrote "a detailed analysis of the utility billing process … confirmed that all of the rate increases were implemented accurately and on a timely basis," and that "monthly billings were processed accurately."

Norton, who was honored by commissioners Thursday after his recent resignation from the board, said he didn't want to comment or speculate on past mistakes, instead choosing to move forward with solutions.

Sanders, who started as the finance director of Indian Rocks Beach in January, did not respond to three messages left at his office Friday.

Lawrence, now living in Powder Springs, Ga., said the city staff made earnest efforts to answer all of Hackworth's questions. He stopped short of placing blame on anyone in past administrations, instead chalking it up to misplaced decimal points and old mistakes.

"This is ancient history, isn't it? I don't see a story here," Lawrence said. "I'm long gone from Dunedin, and the last thing I would want to do is point a finger at anybody."

Kynes, Eggers and Scales said they remember Hackworth's years-old questioning. Scales said she, too, raised questions on why stormwater revenue wasn't matching projections but settled on answers from the city staff that the projections — not, in actuality, the rate — were miscalculated.

"I cannot speak to Mr. Hackworth's perceptions of things," Scales said. "I don't know what the reality was. I frankly don't remember."

Hackworth, who has stayed in the local political spotlight, most notably in dealing with the Dunedin Country Club, since leaving the commission earlier this year, lost in a November election bid for the U.S. House of Representatives' District 10 seat against incumbent C.W. Bill Young.

Elected mayor in 2006, Hackworth said he brings up the inquiries not for his ego but to shine light on what he called a severe lapse in bureaucratic oversight.

"It was more than just an error or carelessness — it was clearly a pretty serious failure to do the fiscally responsible thing that I think we're all expected to do," Hackworth said. "I was definitely the only one (asking questions). That's part of why an answer wasn't gotten. At the time, I think it was just to explain it away, to stop asking the questions."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Dunedin ex-commissioner says efforts to find $2.2 million utility revenue leak rebuffed 10/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2009 10:52pm]
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