INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Nearly $1-million of red ink in the city's sewer and solid waste operations has decimated monetary reserves and will mean potentially sharp rate increases for residents.
"There is a danger that the continuing cash drain of the enterprise funds will affect the fiscal viability of the remainder of the city unless corrected quickly," Rob Garner, a consultant hired to examine the city enterprise funds, told the commission Tuesday.
The report was not entirely a surprise since the commission has known for months that the sewer and solid waste operations were losing money.
Since last year, the commission knew it needed to raise sewer and possibly solid waste rates to return those enterprise funds to profitability.
The city's auditor told the commission in March there were "irregularities" in the funds' financial reporting practices.
But for the first time, the extent and the possibly dire financial ramifications of the situation were bluntly driven home.
"You are running out of cash. The only way to get out of this is to raise the rates," Garner said. "I am just warning you that your balance sheet is going to look bad. It's not just a sewer issue, it's a city issue."
According to Garner, both the sewer and solid waste funds lost money in six of the past seven years.
When the funds' cash reserves were depleted last year, the city transferred nearly all of its $1-million in reserves to pay for sewer and solid waste operations.
Garner did not say the city faced bankruptcy but did warn that the city is facing "hard times" and "tough" decisions."
During the discussion, several commissioners repeatedly asked Garner how the city failed to recognize the severity of its financial situation.
Blame was cast at the city's staff, former city managers, former commissioners and the commission itself.
Mayor R. B. Johnson reacted to the news by apologizing to the audience and citizens for his role in not recognizing the extent of the problem.
"This wasn't a total mystery to us last year," Johnson said, recalling that staff told the commission utility rates needed to be increased.
"The commission at the time decided not to do it. People came up to the microphone and said don't raise our rates. I regret not doing something at that time. Now seven months have gone by and we still haven't raised rates," Johnson said.
"R. B., I am very proud of you tonight," responded Commissioner Cookie Kennedy, who was elected in March. "It takes a very big person to do that and it was very heartfelt. I would expect that of my mayor."
But former commissioner Jose Coppen, who was a frequent critic of the city's staff and of City Treasurer Marty Schless in particular, refused to take any blame.
"I don't have any like for self-flagellation," Coppen said. "We never received the right information."
Coppen said he had no idea "the general fund was being drained to support enterprise funds.
"I am sorry, but I am not admitting any fault. I feel I was misled," Coppen said.
Former Mayor Bill Ockunzzi pointed blame at a former auditor, at former city managers, at "foot-dragging" over increasing rates for residents, and at some commissioners for not wanting to review regular financial reports.
"There is deception bordering on fraud in these financials. You need to get to bottom of why this happened," resident Nancy Obarsky said.
Part of the reason, according to Garner, was a 188 percent increase in fees charged by Pinellas County when it switched to flow-based billing for water and sewer usage.
The city did raise its fees to residents but not by nearly enough, he said.
Garner said the city's budgeting practices did not recognize soon enough that the cash reserves were disappearing.
From 2001 to 2007, the funds lost $1.1-million and spent $1.6-million to pay for operations. By last year, the annual operating loss reached more than $312,000, with a cash deficit of $438,748, which the city covered with advances from the general fund.
During the seven-year period, Garner said, income from utility fees increased each year by only 3.19 percent, while operating expenses jumped by 13.07 percent a year.
This problem was compounded, he said by "apparently erroneous forecast assumptions, incorrect beginning balances," and failure to recheck fund operations.
The commission has hired a consulting firm (not Garner) to study the utilities and recommend a new rate structure. Their report is due at the commission's July 8 workshop.