Someone at Tampa's City Hall needs to put on a pot of coffee and stay awake. This week's announcement that the city overpaid garbage hauler Waste Management $1.2 million over a four-year period is only the latest example of an auditing operation asleep at the wheel. Past problems with pension overpayments and inflated water bills showed the same absence of diligence by city staff when it comes to keeping track of public money.
City staff said a preliminary review found that the hauling company overcharged the city $1.4 million from 2008 through 2012. Waste Management has a contract to collect commercial waste in the city. The two sides negotiated over the past year and settled on a $1.2 million rebate. The billing errors were entirely preventable. And it's troubling to think how high the overcharges had to go before being noticed by either side.
Waste Management blames the city, saying Tampa's accounting procedures created confusion about how much garbage the company collected. The company said it billed by the container that was ordered for any given address — not by the business name — which led to double billing at some addresses after companies came and went. An internal audit of the city's solid waste contracts is under way.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn did the right thing by extending Waste Management's contract for the short term and putting the work out to bid for later this year. The new bid will also require the next hauler to provide more detailed billing information. That will help, but it should not have taken so long for the city and its contractor to realize that their billing systems were on different pages and that the potential for overbilling was great.
Waste Management is not blameless; it shouldn't fall entirely to the city to catch a sloppy business practice that puts so much money into private hands. The company said it would repay the money in time to bid on the new contract, to be in place by July, and it should be prepared to answer for its role in this episode.
But the city is ultimately responsible for ensuring the integrity of its operations. And it's fallen remarkably short in recent years, whether in the case of its cavalier readings of water meters or in the overpayments of pension benefits to the heirs of retired employees. Residents expect public officials to be better stewards of their money.