Legislators may open probe of Riviera finances

RIVIERA BEACH The city and its community redevelopment agency will face scrutiny by a Florida legislative committee to determine whether an investigation is needed in light of a scathing state audit of city finances, the committee's chairman said Thursday.

State Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, who chairs the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, said the findings by the state auditor general of poor record-keeping, unpaid sales taxes, lack of competitive bidding and undocumented expenses require close scrutiny of Riviera Beach's finances.

The committee meets Monday in Tallahassee, and Domino will bring up the audit's findings to see whether committee members want to launch an investigation.

"These are not casual or isolated incidents of fiscal misfeasance," said Domino, who was approached by residents a year ago to get the state to audit the city's books. "This is a pretty broad brush, at the very least, of poor internal controls, and that's got to be resolved right away."

According to Florida law, the committee has the power to subpoena documents and witnesses to hold hearings. It also has the authority to stop any state money from going to the city or the CRA until they comply with Florida law.

Auditors found that city credit cards were used for purchases such as groceries, car repairs and electronics, but they had difficulty determining whether the charges were for public purposes because of a lack of documentation.

Auditors found similar problems at the CRA. Payments to consultants were not always supported by invoices, including a case in which a consultant received $1.2 million without showing hours worked or tasks performed.

Auditors concluded that the CRA spent $5.6 million from October 2002 to November 2005 for consultant services but had little to show for it.

The agency failed to accomplish projects listed in its 2001 plan, according to the audit.

Councilwoman Liz Wade, who went to Tallahassee a year ago to block the audit, said its findings are not new.

The findings mirror a report commissioned by the CRA through its financial review advisory committee, an advisory board that reviewed the CRA's finances after the agency went deeply in debt.

"I am totally aware of the problems," said Wade, who in 2005 deemed the audit to be a waste of tax dollars. "Nothing is going to change until we realize the situation we're in."

The legislative committee voted in October 2005 to audit the city and the CRA. In addition, three state lawmakers and two Palm Beach County commissioners echoed residents' call for an audit.

Auditors examined the city's and the CRA's books from Oct. 1, 2004, to Nov. 30, 2005. The 29-page report included 25 findings and recommendations as well as a response from the city and the CRA.

Mayor Michael Brown said the audit clearly shows the city needs to be more accountable to the public regarding its record-keeping and spending.

He believes that a strong-mayor form of government, which he has advocated, would eliminate many of the administrative problems noted by auditors.

"The audit shows you that no one person is in charge of this city, and that person needs to be a mayor who has the hiring and firing ability of top administrative positions," said Brown, who functions as a ceremonial mayor.

The audit also was critical of the CRA's lack of control over consultants' fees.

Former Councilman Don Wilson, who served during the period under review, said there was a push by the CRA board - which consists of the city council members - to get its $2.4 billion waterfront redevelopment off the ground.

In hindsight, however, the council may have moved too quickly without the necessary financial controls.

"There was a need to get things done expeditiously," Wilson said. "As a result of that, we didn't scrutinize as closely as we should have."