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Brighton to seek forensic audit of utilities

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Council reacts to city manager presentation and public response

 

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By Liam Adams

Staff Writer

Brighton City Council decided July 2 to hire a forensic audit firm to examine its utility department, which has on hand tens of millions in excess funds.

The decision came after a presentation by City Manager Philip Rodriguez and emotional statements from the public. Rodriguez reported excess cash of $63 million in the water, waste water and storm water funds.

When he discovered the cash last fall, the excess was $67.6 million, but some of the money has been used on a number of projects since. Some examples include a new automated billing system, extending sewer lines, and rehabilitating water tanks, Rodriguez told the Blade in a separate interview. 

Council members have previously debated on whether a forensic audit is appropriate, because it’s commonly used to investigate criminal behavior. 

Councilwoman Lynn Baca said she didn’t want to spend the money if there wasn’t suspicion of criminal behavior.

Mayor Ken Kreutzer told the Blade in a separate interview that before deciding on a forensic audit, he wanted an outside expert to verify the figures that the city manager has presented.

Rodriguez explained that the money accumulated each year after City Council passed “re-budget amendments,” at the request of the utilities department. When the amendments were passed, utilities rates also were raised. This happened each year from 2012 to 2018, he said. 

But that extra revenue was not spent on the projects for which they were appropriated. The city was saving 116 percent more money than they were actually spending, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said between 2012 and 2018, the city’s adopted budget for utilities funds for water, waste water and storm water was a little more than $95 million. The amendments increased the budget to almost $208 million, but the actual expenses were just $58.3 million.

Furthermore, Rodriguez said there’s reason to be suspicious of criminal behavior and thus, a need for a forensic audit.

He said previous annual audits into the utilities funds and other funds have been clean, despite previous city officials who were proven of wrongdoing.  

For example, previous city manager Manuel Esquibel was publicly censured for ethics violations. 

In addition, Holly Hansen, a former president of the Greater Brighton Chamber of Commerce was prosecuted for embezzling money from the city. The chamber receives Lodging Tax grants from the city, said Kristen Chernosky, communications and engagement director for Brighton. 

After talking numbers, Rodriguez turned to discuss the impact on constituents. Residents have called him saying they’ve had to decide between affording medication and paying their utility bills because of high rates. “It’s the social equity and impact piece that we cannot just let skirt by any longer. This something that we, as a community, have to own up to,” said Rodriguez. 

Residents in attendance echoed his point. 

“You have too many [funds]!” said Wayne Scott, a Brighton resident and former councilor, to the council, “A forensic audit is a tool to get you back on track.” 

 “I’m speaking as one of those fixed income people. I feel very violated because I have trouble making ends meet,” said Jo Pinto.  “I did not need another government entity, and one that I grew up with and spent my life being loyal to, stealing from me.”

Feeling misunderstood on previous positions, Mayor Kreutzer insisted, “I want the damned answers, just like you do…And with that, I will make a motion that we take all necessary steps to do a forensic audit of the utility fund,” said Kreutzer.

The motion passed unanimously.