Council reacts to state audit, water use report
Lincoln City Councilmen Peter Gilbert and Dan Karleskint defended the city’s financial status in response to a state legislative committee’s decision last week to audit Lincoln and management practices at City Hall.
Karleskint said the city of Lincoln is not in danger of declaring bankruptcy.
“Our reserve position is prudent and strong. I don’t see how anyone can refute that,” Karleskint said. “The charge was that Lincoln is a city at critical risk.”
Karleskint wants city staff to include the cost of supporting the audit by the state auditor to the annual budget.
“I believe it is prudent for us to provide the true cost of this activity to our citizens,” Karleskint said. “It is my opinion that we are going to have to supplement our staff by contracting out appreciable work in order to support this effort.
“This activity will be stressful enough with sufficient staff,” Karleskint added. “Our goal should be to expedite the audit as much as possible so that we can dissipate the pall hanging over us as quickly as possible.”
Lincoln resident Travis Mickel sees “a pattern of contradictions” from city leaders and criticized Councilman Paul Joiner’s testimony before the Assembly Joint Legislative Audit Committee on May 16. Joiner testified to the committee that the city’s “sound financial outlook is substantiated” on May 16.
“Just a few months ago, we were told the city’s financial situation was so poor that refunds of our own money could not be given,” Mickel said. “It’s hard to ignore the contradictions.”
Gilbert said many of the city’s critics don’t understand how municipal finances work.
“We can’t take money from the water fund or any other fund to hire more firemen,” Gilbert said. “Anybody who wants to talk about the state hearing needs to look at the multi-page document we submitted.”
The multi-page document Gilbert referred to is a letter to the Assembly Joint Legislative Audit Committee. The 10-page letter addresses the potential for Lincoln to become an at-risk city and cites the city’s ability to pay short-term obligations, capacity to respond to financial emergencies, increasing revenue growth, ability to pay retiree obligations and its projected fiscal outlook.
The council also presented the Meyers/Nave report, based on an investigation into the city’s practice of unbilled municipal-water use.
The investigation into the city’s practice of not paying for its own municipal water use was initiated by Mayor Stan Nader in January. More than 20 current and former civic leaders were interviewed during the investigation conducted by Katherine Cook of the Meyers/Nave law firm.
The council allowed public comment and held a discussion on the report’s findings.
Three councilmen, Gilbert, Karleskint and Nader, said they were concerned that Lincoln City Manager Matt Brower was not completely forthcoming with them or residents regarding the issue of unbilled municipal water use.
“My biggest take-away is that I have not received a full explanation of the email sent by the City Manager (Matt Brower) to Ted Jones saying water loss was fire hydrants and flushing,” Nader said. “I believe he knew it was more than that.”
Jones is a Lincoln resident and member of L.I.F.T. or unified to lifting Lincoln to new heights through Integrity, Financial responsibility and total Transparency. The L.I.F.T. Group successfully sued the city last year over water rates not compliant with Prop. 218.
According to the Meyers/Nave report, Jones asked Brower in an email whether any water customers were receiving free or subsidized water.
Brower, according to the report, told Jones he was “confident there are not internal or external subsidies being supported in the water fund.” Jones subsequently made a public records request for the city’s own water bills, which led to the public disclosure regarding the city’s practice of not billing itself for municipal water use.
A footnote in the Meyers/Nave report about the December correspondence between Brower and Jones indicates that Public Services director Jennifer Hanson and Support Services director Steve Ambrose advised Brower to make a public statement regarding the city’s historic practice of not requiring public parks and landscaping to pay for their own water consumption.
“I’m still not clear why certain things took place,” Nader said. “When citizens question our trust and level of transparency, and direct those comments at staff, it is troubling to me.”
Karleskint said he shared Nader’s concern.
“The city manager was not untruthful but not truthful,” Karleskint said about the Brower-Jones email exchange.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Karleskint said Brower “parsed his words very well is the impression I got.”
“I’m not defending that method of communication,” Karleskint added. “But the whole context of the (report) was about 20 years of (municipal) water use boiled down to one statement.”
Brower said Wednesday the email exchange has been taken out of context and that there was “ongoing communication with lots of information going back and forth.” Brower said he asked Jones to “allow me to verify” the response regarding water loss.
“This (municipal water use) is an issue inherited by me,” Brower said. “We’re working to try and put together a viable solution and I think we’ve been effective.”
“Policy-making is not a clean business, and above all else, this is a policy issue,” Brower added.
Gilbert was “speechless” when the unbilled municipal water-use issue was brought to his attention. Gilbert said he was unaware city staff had taken steps to address the unbilled municipal water use in the budget.
“I made several inquiries to the city manager and never got an explanation acceptable to me,” Gilbert said. “Although we approved the budget last year, that in fact started charging the city for its water use, I have reviewed the budget with the city manager and it is still not clear to me or for that matter anyone else that this line item is to cover city use of water.”
“I would like this issue to be offered to the State Auditor’s team when they start their audit,” Gilbert added. “It is my hope they will be able to deal with this issue from a position of neutrality and provide us answers going forward.”
Brower said Wednesday he should have brought the budget fix, relating to unbilled municipal water-use, to the council’s attention.
“Peter asked why the council was unaware of the fix and he’s right, I did not have a clear explanation for him,” Brower said. “I missed it. I should have let the council know. We fixed it (in the budget) but I didn’t daylight it and that’s on me. Their decisions are only as good as the information we give them.”
Leftwich recognized Tuesday
Lincoln city engineer Ray Leftwich, working for the city since 2005, oversees projects as big as five-million gallon water tanks and as small as filling potholes on aged downtown streets.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Leftwich was recognized by the Sacramento chapter of the American Public Works Association for Administrative Management. The award is part of the association’s Professional Manager of the Year program.
Rick Liptak, the association’s chairman of the awards program, said there are 10 categories for manager of the year and the administrative management covers all categories.
“Ray was the only engineer at the city during the (economic) downturn and he has since increased his staff to seven and resurrected the GIS (geographic information system),” Liptak said. “Under Ray’s leadership, projects are getting done. His staff talks about his honesty, integrity and service to the community.”
Assistant city engineer Araceli Cazares praised Leftwich.
“He gets to know each of us as individuals,” Cazares said. “He has a great passion for the city of Lincoln.”
Travis Williams, a construction manager for the city, “can rely” on Leftwich to treat him fairly.
“Everything I want in a manager is embodied in Ray,” Williams said. “Over the last four years, he has built this team. He is committed to his employees even before he hires them.”
Leftwich deferred to his staff.
“It’s easy to be a good leader when you have awesome people to work with,” Leftwich said. “I accept this award on behalf of my staff.”