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Workers' worries lead to changes

Four city collections employees had a long list of complaints about how their department is run, saying some utility customers get preferential treatment, some employees are frequently absent and some promotions are based on favoritism.

City auditor Steve Smith spent weeks investigating those complaints, studying dozens of utility accounts and interviewing employees. On Monday, he released a report on his findings and recommendations, which include putting new "customer-friendly" collections policies in writing and enforcing employee attendance rules.

He said he did not find any sweeping problems in the city collections department, which receives and processes utility payments, opens new accounts and stops service for non-payment. He said he could not prove that some customers get preferential treatment or that favoritism is a factor in promotions.

Fiscal services administrator Tish Elston has already reassigned the collections manager and brought in a new department director to improve employee morale.

"There needs to be fair and consistent treatment," Elston said. "There was a perception that there wasn't fair and consistent treatment. Fresh eyes to clear up the problems."

The changes that have come as a result of the audit are:

+ George Friedel, who was the city collections manager, was moved to the finance department to handle financial projects and procedures. The position is a new one, and Elston said Friedel's reassignment is a lateral move.

+ The city collections department used to report to the finance director, who reports to Elston. Elston created a new department called billing and collections, which will report directly to her. Budget manager Richard Bulger was promoted to the head of that new department.

+ Customer service supervisor Cynthia Brown was suspended for seven days for regularly being late to work or absent. Her personnel file shows that in the 22 years she has worked for the city she has frequently been punished for her attendance record.

In an employee notice in her personnel file, Bulger writes that Brown is a "chronic offender" of the city's attendance policies. The next offense, he says, will be grounds for her firing.

"Termination is called for under the guidelines of the Code, however, in light of the length of service you have with the city, the penalty has been reduced to a five-day suspension," Bulger wrote.

Brown also was reprimanded for being rude to customers. Brown could not be reached for comment.

+ The city has adopted a policy allowing flexible payment for utility account deposits in cases of hardship. The city also works out payment schedules for customers who have past-due bills.

While Smith supports these "customer-friendly" procedures, he said both must be put in writing. City officials are in the process of writing such rules.

+ The City Council has asked the mayor to discontinue a practice that allows city employees to cash one personal check per day, up to $50. Elston is going to review that practice, but has not decided whether to cancel it.

As part of the audit, Smith looked into five checks that Brown cashed that bounced. She later paid the penalties for bouncing the checks. Smith recommends that if the practice continues, a policy be put in place to prohibit an employee from cashing checks if they bounce.

"I don't intend to pursue this any further," Smith said. "I am confident that our utility accounting system is properly accruing the charges to our customers and that the money is being properly deposited."

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