BEAR CREEK - Due to recent accusations made by the public that the Town of Bear Creek has mishandled or misappropriated funds, the water department has issued a statement documenting past funding discrepancies the department is currently working to correct.
Resident Michael Jordan approached Mayor Rob Taylor and town council members at a recent meeting about what he termed as a major hindrance to the public being able to obtain public records.
Jordan presented the council with a copy of the law where the public has the right to inspect public records that the town is bound by law to provide upon request.
“In no way are we trying to keep anyone from those records,” Taylor pointed out. The Town of Bear Creek, however, has a different policy by which the public can obtain public records, the mayor explained.
If a request is made for public records, the town clerk submits a request to the town’s attorney Scott Hunt, who must give permission before the clerk will release the requested documents, Taylor explained.
“June 30, over a month ago, I requested records,” Jordan pointed out.
“I just got (the notice) today to get that ordinance,” town clerk Kay Wiginton responded. “That’s all he (the attorney) told me to give you, so that’s all I can give you.”
“I tried calling him too, multiple times,” Jordan responded. “It’s all public records, the minutes of the meetings. That’s all I’m asking for. I’m not asking for an act of congress here.”
Jordan added the public had a right to see bank statements, in order to see how the town is doing.
“You don’t get bank statements. You can get financial statements,” returned Taylor.
“We have a right to see all of that stuff. That’s all I’m asking,” Jordan said.
“I am not arguing with that in any way,” Taylor said.
“Then forget Scott Hunt and give me the records,” noted Jordan. “When you do not give them, it makes it look like you’re trying to hide something.”
“We have nothing to hide,” answered Taylor.
“I am not saying you do,” Jordan returned. “What’s the big deal?”
“We are not going to turn it into a circus like it was before,” Taylor said. The mayor was referring to the public requesting public records which took a previous clerk several hours to obtain each time they were requested.
Jordan said he was wanting to look at the records and keep up with meetings he missed. “We know we’re broke all the time,” he said.
Taylor said the present administration came into office when the town was nearly $70,000 in debt in the water system.
“The water bill hadn’t been paid in going on three months,” he said.
Just in penalties, fees and interest, the town owes $20,231.53 on $100,000 worth of federal and state taxes that had not been paid dating back to 2017, Taylor informed the public at the meeting .
“There is no sense in that,” said Taylor, noting the penalties and fees dated from 2016-January 2021, when Wiginton came on board and began finding discrepancies.
From 2018 through the latter part of 2020, $54,724.18 in delinquent water bills had been written off or zeroed off the accounts during a previous administration, the mayor informed.
“We just gave away $54,000,” Taylor pointed out.
Taylor explained the request to obtain public records would have to be made through the attorney so the town clerk would not spend an entire day looking through records and not be able to do her daily tasks.
When the attorney makes the approval, it is submitted to the town clerk, who can then release the records, Taylor further explained.
“We don’t want somebody down there eight hours a day just looking for stuff,” said Taylor. “I am not hiding anything from you (Jordan), and I am not hiding anything from anyone here. We are going to be completely transparent,” Taylor added.
“You know, I know, we’ve been facing this water loss forever,” Jordan said.
The mayor answered the town is hoping to receive a general obligation bond for a $1.2 million major water improvement project that would replace the remainder of the older service lines. This would help tremendously on the town’s water loss situation, the mayor informed.
Jordan said the town was losing 18,000 - 19,000 gallons of water a month.
“You’re talking about a quarter of a million dollars every year,” Jordan said.
In response to concerns such as these, as well as other similar concerns presented by the public, Water Clerk Kesli Blankenship issued a public notice showing documentation of past indiscretions which continue to be discovered by the present administration. In fact, new findings of discrepancies have emerged since the council meeting, she said.
Blankenship cited multiple examples of “blatant disregard for city money, extreme neglect of financial accounts, and absolutely unacceptable amounts of charged-off fees from customers’ accounts being listed as ‘bad debt’ by the previous water works representative,” she wrote.
The $54,724.18, which Taylor cited during the meeting was the amount written off as bad debt and never collected from water customers. The charged-off report dated from Jan. 1, 2018, to March 1, 2021, town officials said.
Also, a breakdown of all the utility privilege license taxes not paid on time over the last three years accumulated to $10,211.46, according to clerks. This total reflected the period of August, 2018, through April, 2021.
These discrepancies have proven to be hardships not only on Blankenship, but Wiginton.
Blankenship said the $54,724.18 represented water accounts listed as charge-offs, which were never attempted to be billed to the customer but, were erased off the books.
“Quite a few (of the customers) we have discovered were able to open accounts after that as well, with their old balance wiped off,” Blankenship pointed out.
Blankenship is having difficulty recovering these funds since they were listed as charged off, but customers have reached out to her about previous balances they are trying to pay in full.
“I have been able to recover an estimate of $1,000,” she pointed out.
“Ninety nine percent have zero notes in the account or anything in reference to it,” she added. “No one tried to collect this money.”
“They just weren’t making (the customers) pay the past due balance,” Wiginton added.
One customer, for instance, was having their meter read, but was receiving free water, never being billed for their water, Blankenship also stated.
Blankenship noted she found documentation showing figures were being hidden, in that “when you print out a tax return, you print off your payment and the tax return itself showing a breakdown of all the fees you are paying,” she explained.
“Well, the previous clerk was not printing off the tax summary where you could not see those fees being added. She was not printing off all documentation to show those fees that were accumulating every month,” Blankenship pointed out.
Blankenship has been able to pick up the paper trail, and has submitted her findings to the State Examiners of Public Accounts, which has instructed her to continue to submit things as they are found.
In her research, Blankenship has found an entirely different issue relating to discrepancies in funding, she said.
These figures are dealing with the reading of water meters by employees each month.
Some water customers, Blankenship explained, had high water usage which, in a typical case, would cause the clerk to flag the account to be read again in order to make sure there was not a leak or the meter was not read incorrectly, she said.
In November, 2020, a customer had a high reading, but for the next four months, zero was written down for usage, instead of the leak being documented, Blankenship further explained.
For those four months, the town missed out on $6,525.17, she said.
“The water that was shelling out, and the clerk was putting in zero. That’s how much money was being wasted.” Blankenship said, estimating that “hundreds to thousands of gallons” were being wasted.
The next example Blankenship cited was a customer who did not have as big of a leak, but the leak was more prolonged, without being recorded for 11 months. This equaled to $2,427.19 for that period.
“It wasn’t documented. It wasn’t being dealt with,” Blankenship pointed out, stressing the water employees reading their meters were doing their jobs.
“The clerk was putting in zero for these addresses, that were complaining about their high bills,” she stated.
Blankenship said these discrepancies just add to the “insane amount of water loss” the town has been experiencing. Yet, she is working to mitigate as much of the loss as possible by going through these figures.
Wiginton’s job as town clerk has also been affected by the clerk from a previous administration not paying federal or state taxes for three quarters of last year, Wiginton said. The town has gone backto pay almost $10,000 back-time for eight months in retirement on an employee, according to Wiginton.
“It’s still money out of our pocket that shouldn’t have come out like it did,” Wiginton pointed out.
Blankenship, who has been the town’s water clerk since March, is going back reviewing accounts, trying to make things right for customers who were overcharged as well as customers who were never charged, she said.
“I had (a customer) the other day, that I ended up having to refund almost $300,” Blankenship said. “They had a month where they were charged 20,000 gallons for usage. Sure enough, when I’m doing the readings, it’s lower than that. The readings now still don’t even add up to as much as she (the former clerk) charged them.
“It’s satisfying getting things corrected, so that we can move forward, take a breath and know we are doing things correctly,” she added.
“I’m ready to move on from this tax issue and make sure everything is correct on the other side,” Wiginton added.
“We had nothing to do with decision making in the past whatsoever,” Taylor pointed out. “We have nothing to hide.
Taylor added that the town is trying to get all of the finances caught up from a previous administration.
“Hopefully we’ll get to the point we can get it caught up and move forward,” Taylor added.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.