Audit criticizes St. Gabriel over uncollected sewer fees

This city was criticized in an audit report this week for having a “significant amount” of unpaid customer sewer bills — some of which were for city employees.

The audit, released Monday by the state’s Legislative Auditor’s Office, also chides St. Gabriel for disregarding the public bid laws by not securing enough bid proposals before purchasing a vehicle at a cost of more than $30,000.

The audit, which tracked the city’s financial activity during the 2012-13 fiscal year, says delinquent sewer bills have been an ongoing issue for the city because St. Gabriel lacks the proper controls and oversight to effectively monitor its monthly billings and receipts.

Mayor Lionel Johnson said Tuesday that the city has nearly $350,000 worth of unpaid residential sewer bills. He said about $106,000 of the outstanding bills are linked to inactive accounts for former residents.

Out of the city’s 874 customer accounts, the mayor said, 310 have past due balances totaling $240,000.

Johnson said only five delinquent accounts belonged to city employees.

“This has been a long-standing problem,” he said. “Our problem is: We only have control over sewer. Water service is a parish-run utility. If you don’t pay your water bill, the parish cuts you off. If you don’t pay your sewer bill, we have no way of shutting you off. As long as you have water (service) and you are connected, you have sewer service. ”

Iberville Parish took over the city’s water service in September 2012 when it abolished Waterworks District No. 2 after an audit of the water district exposed financial irregularities that included unaccounted-for funds, approximately $80,000 in unpaid invoices and questionable payouts to former employees.

Johnson said Tuesday that the city intends to finally address the issue of its outstanding sewer bills through a partnership with the parish.

“We want to combine our sewer bill with the parish’s water bill so we can shut off services,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said the city has already collected outstanding sewer debts owed by employees.

As for the audit’s finding that the city possibly violated the state’s public bid law to purchase a new vehicle for the Police Department, Chief Kevin Ambeau called it a “simple mistake” that occurred because it was the first time he purchased a vehicle through the bid process.

According to the audit report, state bid law mandates municipalities obtain at least three quotes for purchases in excess of $10,000 and public advertisement of purchases exceeding $30,000.

Ambeau said the city placed a public advertisement to purchase the vehicle but only garnered one quote. He said he wasn’t aware the city needed to get two more quotes.

Johnson pointed out that “there was no misappropriation of funds” cited in the audit.