By Roger McCredie- Documents handed over to the Tribune relating to expenditures within Asheville’s Stormwater Services Department raise more questions than it was hoped they would answer, according to Tribune publisher David Morgan.
“We had expected this updated material would help explain the discrepancies we found in the figures we reviewed year before last, but this is like peeling an onion,” Morgan said.
On March 3, the day after the Tribune published an account of its repeated attempts to obtain the information it was looking for (see “City Ignores Tribune’s Request … “, March 2) the city e-mailed copies of ledger sheets relating to the stormwater utility’s salaries and wages, construction expenditures and a category the budget calls “other direct expenses.”
Also among the documents turned over that day was a copy of the city’s 2015 Form LGC 203, the report of deposits and investments it must file annually with the North Carolina Local Government Commission.
However, within the internal information the city provided, several large expenditure figures are not broken down and several others are captioned in nonspecific terms. Accordingly the Tribune has now asked the city to provide further explanations of them. The items in question total just under $2 million and are shown in the table below:
|Maintenance||Page 1||Pulliam Spake||$245,003|
|services||Page 3||Mail Management Services||$42,854|
|Tipping Fees||Page 4||Buncombe County Finance||$48,901|
|Cellular Usage||Page 5||$1,423|
|Storm Water Street Cut||Page 6||$168,426|
|Monthly Transfers||Page 6-7||Cost Allocations||$559,255|
|Rental/Lease||Page 7||Trench Roller/United Rentals||$15,386|
|Machinery||Page 7||Auto/Boyd Pontiac||$21,300|
|Transfer to Stormwater Cap Fund||Page 27||July 2014/May 2015||$411,334|
|Engineering & Design Services||page 28||CDM Smith||$215,872|
The Tribune is also asking why, according to its LGC 203 report, the city currently maintains an investment portfolio amounting to almost $127 million. Of that amount, $19.4 million consists of “commercial paper, including an investment of nearly $5 million in Coca-Cola stock.
“The income from a portfolio that size comes to several million dollars a year. Where’s it going?” Morgan asked. Why isn’t it going to offset some of these infrastructure expenses the taxpayers are having to pay for with a stormwater tax?”
The Tribune published a series of articles on the financing of the city’s stormwater operations in 2013-14. In 2014 an analysis of the information that was eventually supplied by the city – after several weeks’ worth of requests and delays – showed that salaries made up approximately 38% of the stormwater department’s budget. The category titled “Other Direct Expenses” which stormwater department head McCray Coates said “is for things like materials, contracted services, professional services, fleet maintenance, fuel, street cut charges, tipping fees, etc.,” also came to about 38% of the total budget. When construction costs were broken out separately, they averaged about 3%. And the remainder, which historically has ranged between 19 and 21 per cent, was shown as going into a reserve fund, at an average of $660,000 per year.
The 2014 study further revealed that when the itemized expenditure figures, which totaled $13,896,552, were subtracted from $17,622,027 in gross revenue, a balance of $3,725,505, or 21%, was left unaccounted for.
So on February 15 the Tribune, seeking to update its analysis, sent the city a letter asking specifically for copies of that department’s line item ledger sheets pertaining to salaries and wages, construction expenditures and “other direct expenses.” On the advice of City Clerk Maggie Burleson the Tribune’s letter was directed to Benjamin Farmer, an assistant in the city’s Legal Department, rather than to Dawa Hitch, the city’s Director of Communication and Public Engagement, whose department usually processes document requests.
On February 29, not having heard from Farmer, the Tribune telephoned him to inquire as to the status of its request. Although an aide indicated Farmer was available the call went to his voice mail so the Tribune left a message asking him to return the call. He did not.
The next day, March 1, a Tribune reporter received a message from Sarah Terwilliger, who identified herself as a “records facilitator” with the city. Terwilliger said “Staff is working on your February 12th request,” and attached a link to the city’s annual financial report.
The Tribune replied that it already had a copy of the financial report, which is available on the city’s public website, and explained again that it was seeking the most recent available versions of the material it eventually obtained in 2014, plus the 2015 LGC 203. “As a documents facilitator you [should] be familiar with this report,” the Tribune said.
That was when Terwilliger forwarded the materials that appeared to supply, but only in general terms, the requested information.