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County audit finds lax accounting for $3 million in supplies

Employees who work in Pinellas County's general maintenance division often don't have much time to do paperwork when making emergency repairs to leaking pipes or gushing water mains.

And that's a problem for auditors trying to figure out how more than $3 million in parts and services have been used.

Warehouse staffers don't follow policies or procedures, making it difficult to track supplies such as valves and pipes, according to an audit by the Division of Inspector General at the Clerk of Circuit Court, covering the period from Oct. 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011.

The audit found that employees often used inventory without getting management approval, creating an environment in which there was a "high level of risk that the reported levels of inventories are not accurate, and that these county assets could, or have been, misused without detection."

"The general pattern was one of inattentiveness," said Bob Powell, director of the county's water and sewer division. "We didn't feel there was any untoward activity, just a slackness of the field crews in tracking what they're using."

When crews have to rush to answer calls, often at night, they often don't take the time to fill out the proper outtake forms, Powell said. Once the equipment is used, it's buried in the ground and hard to track, he said.

"We're always in a hurry," he said.

The general maintenance division had a budget of $5.7 million and 154 employees last year. Six of those employees operate two warehouses that store $3 million in supplies. Records show about $1 million of that inventory was used to repair, replace, maintain and extend water, wastewater and recycled water lines.

New procedures are in place that will make it easier to trace how the supplies are used, Powell said. For instance, a bar code is now on many items, so employees need only to swipe them to automatically log them into the system.

The audit also found "excessive use" of county credit cards to purchase equipment and supplies. Four employees were issued cards, which are intended to improve efficiency by allowing quick, low-dollar purchases. According to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, use of the cards by those employees has grown rapidly. In 2010, they made 738 purchases for $327,790. In 2011, they made 741 purchases for a total of $584,334.

Powell said the employees are using the cards more because they have an agreement with a vendor that they will get the lowest possible price, even with the cards.