Commissioner Brenda LaPaz has clarified her stance on Carrabelle’s sewer debt and offered suggestions for city commission protocol.
In February, LaPaz read a seven-page report on Carrabelle’s sewer-related debt and circulated emails suggesting city employees and elected officials had been responsible for incompetence.
In her report as the commissioner charged with supervising water and sewer for the city she wrote, “City staff appeared to have no understanding of the financial complexity or meaning. I explained to DEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) administrators that city administrative transactions/functions were not reported to the city commission. Explained that city administration has made no preparations in recent years to secure or plan for additional sewer revenues to supplement payment of upcoming loan.”
At the March 7 meeting, LaPaz asked Mayor Curley Messer to “accept my sincere apologies for any embarrassment I brought to you or your family.” She told the audience she did not suspect misappropriation of funds or malfeasance related to $11 million in debt incurred during the construction of the sewer treatment system.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect to you or your office,” she told Messer.
LaPaz also said she had been mistaken about references to the debt in a 2011 rate study and had incorrectly written that the DEP would fire city employees to pay for the sewer debt.
“I want to thank you for being lady enough to say that,” Messer said. “I’m 90 years old but I’ve got a good mind. I had a lot more to say to you but I’m glad you apologized.”
In February, LaPaz asked why Carrabelle incurred so much debt. On March 7, she answered her own question.
She noted two reasons for the heavy debt load - capitalized interest and the fact the sewer project and funding for it stretched out over a 16-year period.
“It’s like the gift of a baby elephant; so cute, but it grows up and you need to buy the hay to feed it,” she said.
LaPaz said the DEP now recognizes the loans were flawed and that several communities accumulated large debts by participating in the funding.
“The new rules no longer allow these kinds of loans,” she said.
LaPaz suggested the city hire a certified public accountant to help find the best resolution to sewer debt.
At Messer’s urging, City Attorney Dan Hartman said the city had an obligation to upgrade the sewer system after accepting tap fees from prospective developers. “(The unpaid debt) was a repercussion of the real estate meltdown,” Hartman said.
Former City Commissioner Gathana Parmenas laid a large portion of the blame for the debt on former city engineering consultant Baskerville Donovan.
“Our sewer plant has the capacity to handle a city of 25,000 people. At no time was there ever a possibility that Carrabelle would reach that size,” she said. “The real estate debacle is bad, but it’s unforgivable that the consulting engineer did such poor work. I’m really angry with Baskerville Donovan. I don’t know if there’s legal recourse after all this time, but I wish there was.”
Cliff Holcomb asked, “Since the DEP determined the program they saddled us with is not a good one, is there any possibility we could get relief on the interest?”
Hartman said the city might get some relief in the short term while a rate study is in progress. He also said that Baskerville Donovan should not take all the blame for advising the city to build the oversized plant. “It wasn’t just our consultant; it was DEP that came in here,” Hartman said.
Jim Waddell, liaison for the city’s current engineering consultant, Inovia, said there are ongoing negotiations with several communities to the east to hook into the Carrabelle water treatment system, which would help relieve the debt load on current customers.
“The ball is really in their court now,” he said.
He discussed the possibility of servicing the Lighthouse Estates community. “Their water is not unsafe to drink, but has to be treated,” he said.
Waddell said he believed residents of Lighthouse Estates pay, on average, $125 to $150 monthly to operate household water treatment systems. He said the development could add 250 residences to the city system but added that funding would be needed to tie the community into the grid.
Commissioner Cal Allen said the oversized sewage treatment plant could eventually prove an asset.
“The Northwest Florida Water Management District recommended regionalization for water treatment. In the future, we might be able to help the county in taking care of septic tank problems up and down the coast. Carrabelle would be in a prime position because of our system,” Allen said.
LaPaz offered four recommendations to help the board make better informed decisions in the future.
She moved that the city clerk attach a memo to commissioners’ information packets which would list all bills paid in the previous month. After some discussion of the information already available to commissioners, the motion died for lack of a second.
LaPaz also suggested a detailed list of pending bills be provided commissioners one week in advance of the meeting. That idea received more support.
“That is done at the county level and I don’t see why it can’t be done at the city level, considering what straits we are in,” Parmenas said,
City Clerk Keisha Smith said such reports were provided when John McInnis was city manager but the practice had more recently “fizzled out.” City staffers agreed the practice could be reinstated without a formal motion.
LaPaz then moved the city administrator present a complete written report of all ongoing city projects at each meeting, to be read aloud if possible.
Allen said it would be simpler and less time consuming if the administrator placed the report in commissioners’ information packets. He pointed out that each commissioner is assigned to oversee a department and could report on significant work under their purview.
The commission voted unanimously to accept Allen’s proposal.
LaPaz then asked if the city had a purchasing policy and procedures manual, and offered a copy of the manual in use by Apalachicola. But Smith said Carrabelle was in possession of a sample manual provided by auditors in 2011, and that the procedures would have to be adapted to Carrabelle’s particular circumstances.
LaPaz asked that a copy be made available to her before the next city commission meeting. She also requested a detailed breakdown of the attorney’s billable hours be made available to commissioners at each monthly meeting. The commission voted unanimously in support of that suggestion.