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Publics works employees accused of trading dirt for gifts

BROOKSVILLE — The problems at Hernando County's department of public works just keep piling up.

This time, the issue is dirt.

The St. Petersburg Times has learned that the Hernando County Sheriff's Office recently concluded an investigation into whether public works employees sold surplus fill dirt and favored buyers in exchange for gifts.

The criminal investigation turned up no proof that county workers or supervisors had received cash in return for the dirt that had been taken from retention ponds during routine maintenance, nor did it give any indication that favoritism was involved.

But it did find that county workers received hamburgers, pizzas, sodas, sunglasses and cash to buy lunch from various contractors who were benefiting from the surplus fill dirt.

Following a tip, the sheriff's office began investigating the department several months ago. That probe was recently concluded without criminal charges.

County Administrator David Hamilton wanted a closer look and Peggy Prentice, audit services director for the Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, examined the situation. The results were released this week.

In a memo to Charles Mixson, director of public works, Prentics said that the department "lacked inventory control'' in the way it disposed of the dirt, called "Florida gold'' during the building boom.

"Fill dirt, a surplus commodity of value, was sold or given away to contractors, and possibly the public, yet there is no known record of these actual transactions,'' in possible violation of state law, she wrote.

She tells Mixson, "it may be prudent'' to write several new policies, a finding echoed by Nicolai. "I think it was a sign of the times that something had value and we had to develop policies and procedures to deal with it,'' Nicolai said.

One policy should tell employees that they are not authorized to accept cash or items of value in exchange for county assets. Another should make it clear that if contractors or others are allowed to dig on county property, they should provide the county with proof of insurance, the document stated.

The investigation showed that, in some cases, the county would allow contractors to do the maintenance on drainage areas themselves for no cost but they could keep the fill dirt afterwards.

Mixson said Thursday that he was preparing a response and was also preparing a new policy "so that there won't be any misunderstanding.''

Hamilton said he is concerned about the latest problems with Mixson's department. He said handling basic tasks such as disposing of surplus dirt should be simple, especially for someone with Mixson's long tenure with the county.

"I quite honestly expect more'' from a department head, Hamilton told the Times. "I anticipate having a frank discussion with Mr. Mixson in the near future.''

Mixson strongly defended how his department had handled surplus dirt in the past. Before the building boom of 2005 and since the bust that followed, he said, surplus dirt has been a waste product that had to be hauled to the landfill, costing the county money for trucking and for hauling.

County workers were grateful to find contractors or the public to haul off the dirt. When the dirt suddenly was in demand as fill for construction sites, Mixson said that his department pushed to seek bids to sell it.

As for the pizzas, food and other small gifts received by the county workers, Mixson said the county's existing policy allowed workers to accept small items and that the workers did not make the decisions on who got the dirt. Supervisors did.

Mixson said with the current slump in building, the surplus dirt has turned into a waste product again. "If we offered it today, how many takers do you think we would have?'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Publics works employees accused of trading dirt for gifts 08/21/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 1:12pm]

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