Audit says Sorrento lacking in collecting unpaid bills, fines

Sorrento is having trouble collecting from its utility customers and from drivers who receive tickets issued from a now largely idled Police Department.

A new audit for the 2013 fiscal year says the town had not collected $19,400 in delinquent utility bills nor $53,000 in fines from tickets the department issued.

The findings are part of at least a multiyear trend that has been the subject of repeated findings by town auditors at least since fiscal 2010.

In all, between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2013, the Police Department was not able to collect a combined $529,000 in ticket fines and court fees and the town had a combined $47,800 in delinquent sewer and garbage bills, audits say.

Made public Monday by the state legislative auditor, the latest report by Sorrento’s hired auditor, Postlethwaite and Netterville, of Gonzales, looks at town finances in the fiscal year ending June 30.

First-term Mayor Mike Lambert and four of five new council members took office the day after that fiscal year ended.

Lambert said Wednesday that he is only now beginning to fully grasp the problems with the town’s utility and police finances.

“We were never told anything about the outgoing administration until we took office, and we’ve been hit from one crisis to other,” he said.

For months, the Police Department has been without car or liability insurance.

Then, last month, elected four-term Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. stepped down and pleaded guilty to lying to an FBI agent about inappropriate sexual contact with an intoxicated woman the chief had picked up after a 911 call Nov. 1.

Gov. Bobby Jindal had not appointed an interim chief as of Wednesday, Lambert said, but the town called a special election Nov. 4 to fill the remainder of Theriot’s term and is also seeking legislation to have a referendum also on the Nov. 4 ballot to do away with the department and chief’s position.

Lambert said he hopes the next chief, whether appointed or elected, will take up the uncollected fines and court costs and said he plans to meet with the town attorney and the auditors about how to improve collection on delinquent utility bills.

The town provides garbage and sewer service and collects franchise fees from a private water company.

He said town officials are working to renegotiate the garbage contract, which expires at the end of this fiscal year, and are mulling a sewer rate increase.

“We just got to take it one at a time,” Lambert said.

The Town Council last adopted a sewer rate increase in fiscal 2011, raising the flat fees from $12 to $20 per month, audits say.

During the past four fiscal years, the utility fund has required transfers from the general fund to shore up the utility fund balance sheet but the fund saw a much larger transfer in fiscal 2013, up from $12,826 in 2012 to $112,826 in 2013.

Despite the noted problems with collections in fiscal 2013, auditors did not find they resulted in a material weakness and gave the town an unqualified audit.

The town general fund took in $918,123 in revenue and had $935,420 in expenditures in fiscal 2013. The resulting $17,297 shortfall was covered by the town’s general fund surplus, which ended the year at $603,482. About $223,000 of that surplus was not dedicated and could have been spent on any purpose.

The audit attributed the general fund shortfall to a decrease in police fine and fee collections compared with fiscal 2012 and increases in expenditures on roads and on the Police Department to settle litigation and other costs.

The Police Department wrote $258,000 in tickets for fiscal 2013 but collected $205,000, the new audit says. The $53,000 in uncollected ticket fines and court fees represents an improvement over past years. The amount of uncollected fines and court fees have been declining each year since the 2010 fiscal audit found $229,000 uncollected.