Audit: City of Baker collecting revenues from expired tax

The city of Baker has been collecting a half-cent sales tax dedicated to police and fire department salaries for more than two years even though city voters did not renew the tax after its 10-year run, according to the city’s 2012-13 financial audit.

The special half-cent sales tax was first approved by voters in 2001, but the audit says the tax was to be levied for 10 years and should have expired in 2011 unless voters renewed it, which they did not.

Baker Mayor Harold Rideau disagreed with the finding, insisting the half-cent sales tax is not a 10-year tax. Rideau said city officials understood the sales tax to be permanent and were given that information by the State Bond Commission. Rideau also said there was no set expiration date listed on the ballot when the proposition went to voters in 2001.

However, the Baker City Council did meet in February 2010 and discussed authorizing a special election to renew the half-cent sales tax in question. The tax never went back to voters for renewal.

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who was Baker’s police chief in 2001 and worked to put the half-cent sales tax proposition together, said Friday he remembers the proposal as a 10-year tax that needed to be renewed.

“I don’t know for sure but that’s how I remember it. I don’t think it was permanent,” Gautreaux said.

Former Baker Mayor Leroy Davis, who was elected the same day the half-cent sales tax passed, said he also remembers the half-cent sales tax as a 10-year tax.

The auditors recommended that the city revisit the issue and obtain a legal opinion on whether the tax should be re-levied.

The city administration, however, told auditors no action is needed because the tax has no expiration.

Auditors also found other problems with the city’s finances, including city officials not utilizing the state public bid law when buying a $37,000 police truck as well as Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps failing to provide receipts for $15,000 in Police Department credit card purchases.

Baker City Council President Joyce Burges said Friday she was disappointed in the audit’s findings and called the city discrepancies “shameful.”

“The city of Baker is not a mom-and-pop organization. We need to provide documentation for everything. This is not our money, this is the taxpayers’ money and we need to be more accountable,” Burges said Friday afternoon.

According to the audit, the city is required by state law to obtain and maintain documentation of at least three telephone or fax quotes for purchases in excess of $10,000 and make public advertisements for all purchases exceeding $30,000.

The city purchased a Chevrolet Tahoe for $37,204 but didn’t use the bid process, according to the audit.

Knaps said Friday the public bid process was not required because the truck was purchased under a state contract. But auditors said the city did not provide any documentation to support use of a state contract price.

Knaps provided documents Friday that appear to show the truck was purchased using the state contract price. It was unclear why the documentation was not provided to auditors.

The audit also questioned $15,000 in police credit card purchases made without invoices or receipts to show what the money was spent on.

The money came from the city’s Marshal Fund, a special fund controlled by the police chief from fees collected from Baker City Court.

Knaps said he was called by auditors at the last minute and asked to provide receipts for the $15,000 in purchases. Knaps said he had some of the receipts but others were never given to him in the first place. The police chief said the purchases in question included car washes to hotel and plane costs related to training and conferences.

Knaps said the main problem with the credit card issue was the city’s transition last year to a new auditor, Postlethwaite & Netterville. Before that transition, Knaps said, he was able to just initial credit card statements and was never asked to provide the individual receipts for each purchase.

“Look, we haven’t done anything we are not supposed to do. It’s a transition. I appreciate the job the auditors are doing and this is all going to make us better record keepers,” Knaps said.

The audit is on Tuesday’s Baker City Council meeting agenda. The council will meet at 6 p.m. at Baker City Hall on Groom Road.