Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

TOP STORY >>Auditors discover financial shortfall

Leader staff writer

Allen Ridings, Beebe’s former code enforcement officer, came under fire in the recently completed state audit, but that information did not come from Mayor Donald Ward, who would not talk openly about the report during the Monday night council meeting and refused to release the audit report to The Leader.

Ward spoke in vague terms at the council meeting concerning the audit, which found money was missing. He said the information in the audit report was “of a sensitive nature,” adding, “I do not wish to go into all that.” After the meeting, Ward told this reporter that the audit report was not available for public inspection because he had called for a state police investigation that is still ongoing.

Ward added that he is not willing to risk being sued for releasing negative information if that investigation shows no illegal activity. Ward did offer to release the report with the sensitive parts blacked out. Despite the mayor’s reservations, the entire audit report is available to the public and can be found on the Arkansas Legislative Audit Web site.

Here in its entirety is the section the mayor wanted withheld: “Utility permit inspection fee receipts of $3,370 were not properly remitted to the City Treasurer for the period January 1, 2004 through June 19, 2006.

“Former Code Enforcement Officer Allen Ridings was responsible for collecting and remitting permit fees to the City Treasurer. Also, Mr. Ridings stated he improperly destroyed permit records evidencing receipt of City revenue prior to September 2005.

“The city reimbursed Mr. Ridings $8,282 for personal vehicle mileage documented by expense claims reporting 19,870 consecutive city-related business miles driven without any allowance for personal and commuting miles, during the period of January 1, 2004 through June 19, 2006.

“Mr. Ridings was unable to determine the correct mileage for which he should have been reimbursed for conducting city business. Internal controls relating to inspection fees and mileage reimbursements should be strengthened. “We recommend the city seek reimbursement for the un-deposited inspection fees and for non-business mileage reimbursements improperly received by Mr. Ridings.

“City management has responded that policies and procedures have been implemented to strengthen internal controls relating to inspection fees and mileage reimbursements.” Alderman Mike Robertson, who was mayor before Ward and will be the next mayor since he is running unopposed, said after the meeting that he didn’t agree with Ward that the audit should be withheld from the public.

It is clearly subject to the state’s Freedom of Information law, he said. Though Ward did not speak about any of the negative parts of the audit report and did not mention Ridings’ name, Robertson asked during the meeting if the problem with mileage had been resolved.

Ward answered that there had never been a clearcut policy before, but now city employees can’t collect mileage without turning in odometer readings to show the actual miles driven. Ridings was suspended of his duties June 19 while the state auditor was still going over city records. He was replaced June 21 by Leonard Forte, who was code officer for many years before Ridings was hired. Forte succeeded Monday night in getting the city council to change the city inspection fees to a square footage-based formula instead of cost of construction.

Forte told the council that if they would agree to 10 cents a square foot for inspections (half the amount Searcy charges), he would “make sure the correct amount was collected.”

“If we go by square foot, I’ll go out there and stick a tape on it and everybody will pay by the square foot,” Forte told the council. He said in a later interview that there was no way to know under the old formula whether the correct amount had been collected.

Most houses cost $50,000 or $60,000 on paper, he said, adding that it was highly unlikely that there would be almost no variation. Last year, 27 houses in the same area built by different contractors all cost $60,000, he said.

The new fees will cost builders more, but Cayne Orman, who builds homes all over the city, told the council he did not object to the increase.

Forte said the average house built in Beebe is 1,500 square feet. Under the new fee structure, builders will have to pay $150 for inspections. Under the old system, the cost was $97.50, he said.