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Audits critical of Pinellas accounts

Pinellas County officials were lackadaisical about how they handled surplus furniture and equipment and allowed late rent payments at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, according to two audits released Friday.

By far the more critical of the pair of audits was the probe into county property, a review hastened by the admission of a clerk of the courts' worker earlier this year that he gave surplus furniture to some small police departments.

The employee was disciplined but told his bosses that county purchasing officials advised him to give the property away with no documentation.

The audit said Pinellas could have lost an unknown amount of equipment or allowed it to be stolen easily because of the lack of guidelines and accountability.

Those kinds of thefts are not happening, said Jim Ashman, director of purchasing for Pinellas County.

"We haven't had any (property) turn up stolen that we know of," Ashman said. "And what we have missing each year is insignificant."

Auditors found no evidence of thefts but didn't specifically look for it. Ashman said his department will make some changes suggested in the audit.

Billye Wilcox, head of the clerk of the courts' internal audit division, said his workers found there was no systematic way to check for thefts, especially given a county decision not to list or track property under $500 in value.

"There's a lot of attractive items under $500 that we are buying these days," Wilcox said Friday.

"Items in this category include equipment such as videocassette recorders, cameras, power tools, etc., which are portable and highly susceptible to theft," the audit said.

During the nine-month audit, the county disposed of more than $3.4-million worth of equipment, each item valued at more than $500. Because county workers didn't track items worth less than $500, it is not known how many items went through the county's surplus equipment system.

It doesn't mean, however, that auditors didn't find evidence of missing equipment.

In a test sample of 20 items declared surplus, auditors could not account for the whereabouts of a video monitor. "This item is missing from the warehouse," they wrote. Ashman said Friday the monitor has since been found.

The audit also criticized the purchasing department, which tracks inventory, for:

Removing all equipment valued between $200 and $500 from the county's inventory in 1988-89 without getting the approval of the County Commission.

Ashman said the change came after Pinellas leaders lobbied the state to lower its inventory-reporting laws to cut back on paperwork and the number of employees needed to track county property.

Although Ashman and Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis have agreed to track items worth more than $200 again, Ashman said he is uncomfortable going back to that lower limit. He doesn't know how much it will cost to begin tracking those additional items.

Lacking verification for detailed lists of county equipment sent to an auction company for sale to the public. The audit found that the same workers who handled the inventory compiled the list of equipment sent to the auction company. The company did not sign for the goods and provided a non-detailed list of sales after the fact.

"With these . . . conditions existing simultaneously, property could be diverted before delivery or while in transit to the auction, and the diversion would not be detected," the audit said.

After the audit, county officials agreed to change their policies on handling and disposing of equipment. As of the first week in September, county workers began placing "Property of Pinellas County" on all items worth more than $200 and requiring forms documenting the transfer of any surplus county equipment regardless of cost.

At the airport, a separate audit found the county lost out on more than $100 in interest in a two-month period by holding deposits of $22,000 and $84,000 several days before putting them in the bank.

The airport also had no way to force several tenants to pay their rent on time. One restaurant paid its rent late 10 months out of 12; another was late every month except one. A duty-free shop was late eight months out of 12.

The interest lost because of those late payments was not detailed in the audit. Airport Assistant Director Fred Piccolo said the problem occurs because older leases don't include provisions for late-payment penalties. Such a requirement has been in place for newer leases since 1982, the audit said.

"Given the amount of business out here, we're pretty proud of our record," Piccolo said of the audit.