Sunday, November 18, 2018
Education

Two audits seal the deal. Hillsborough will vote on sales taxes for schools, transportation.

TAMPA — The release of two audit reports Thursday makes it official: The Nov. 6 ballot will give Hillsborough County voters the option of paying an additional 1.5 percent in sales tax to improve their roads, buses and schools.

The reports, commissioned by the Legislature’s Office of Public Policy and Government Accountability, gave mostly high marks to county government, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit system and the school district, with some exceptions. For example, the district had too many vacancies in its maintenance department and the county should consider outsourcing some of its public works operations, the auditors said.

But none of the organizations were graded harshly, and the reports give voters a wealth of information to help them decide whether to approve a full penny for transportation, a half-cent for schools, both, or neither.

Under a new state law, the audits were a necessity for the schools referendum and more of a cautionary measure for the citizen-led All for Transportation Group.

In both cases, staff and consultants had to scramble to get the reports posted 60 days before the election. Both appeared online Thursday afternoon. Earlier in the day, the Hillsborough County Commission approved the ballot resolution for the schools, another required step.

The schools tax, by law, can be used only for capital improvements, such as new buildings in Hillsborough’s fast-growing suburbs or air conditioning upgrades to provide relief for students who are experiencing stifling classroom conditions. District officials estimate the tax will raise $131 million a year for 10 years.

Analysts from the McConnell & Jones accounting firm spent four days in Tampa. They interviewed more than 10 school managers and reviewed lengthy reports.

They concluded in their 111-page report that, in most respects, the school district’s construction department functions as it should.

"Projects were generally completed well, on time and within budget," they wrote after reviewing 34 that were concluded during the last two years.

On the maintenance side, however, the authors noted that the department has 78 vacancies, "with limited effort to fill these positions primarily due to lack of funding." The report goes on to say that, "due to the volume of vacancies in this department, the team is currently not performing preventative maintenance on a proactive basis, which is leading to increased deferred maintenance."

District managers said it is difficult to fill the jobs because the private sector offers higher wages and, with changes in technology, it is sometimes better to use outside contractors.

Still, the auditors noted, the vacancies drive up the cost of overtime pay and could depress morale. They also advised the district to "strengthen its preventative maintenance program," an issue that some blame for the frequent breakdowns in air conditioners.

The report said Hillsborough ranked among the "worst" in a national study that examined how often large school districts took part in cooperative purchasing arrangements to save money.

On a more positive note, the auditors recognized that the Gibson Consulting Group did an exhaustive audit in 2016, in response to the district’s reserve fund crisis.

Gibson listed 120 recommendations to save money, from phasing out busing for households closest to the schools to adopting a staffing formula for clerical hiring. The district has followed many of Gibson’s recommendations.

In its response letter, the district said it is working to correct all of the problems listed.

The audit report on the county and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus system and the county’s public works department, which bids out road projects, concluded that the county has "sufficient policies and procedures in place" to meet state performance audit state standards.

But the team, also from McConnell & Jones, said the county should do more to find out if there are cheaper alternatives to the services it provides in-house.

Overall, the county achieved a "met" or "partially met" rating in 23 of 25 audit categories. HART, after 80 hours of interviews, similarly earned "met" or "partially met" rating in 24 of 25 categories.

The 1 percent sales tax hike for transportation would raise about $280 million per year.

HART would receive 45 percent of the revenue. The rest would go to Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City for road and bridge improvements, pothole repair, sidewalks, bike lanes and projects to ease congestion.

One percent would go to the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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