Santa Barbara's Financial Reports Don't Add Up
By Anna Marie Gott
The City of Santa Barbara held budget workshops to review the plans, reports and finances of every Department. One program called the Outdoor Patio Dining Program, under the Public Works Department, was presented as having annual revenue of ~$90,000.00 with ~$76,000.00 coming from the rent businesses paid to operate dining facilities on public sidewalks. Staff proposed eliminating the annual rent for businesses. - To make it simple this means businesses would not pay $299 per chair annually or $.82 per day for each chair they had on the sidewalk or public right of way. - The Council made the change. The annual rent was eliminated.
You would think that would be the end of the story but something happened. A resident who was incensed by the elimination of rent made a public records request on July 10th for the “payment history for the Outdoor Dining Program” and the document he received from the person responsible for running the program showed that the total amount supposedly collected by the City was ~$142,000 with ~ $131,000 coming from the rent.
The difference in what was claimed in the Public Works Departments budget hearings and the report provided is $52,000. – How could the report be this far off?
I wasn’t happy with the document the City provided so I asked for more documents and information. The more I’ve dug into this the more I believe that something is terribly wrong with numbers the Public Works Department provided.
First, no one in the City seems to know what codes/description would be used to bill under the City’s Fee Schedule for the rents charged under the Outdoor Patio Dining Program. After 20 days no one can respond to a request that simply entails at most looking up a past invoice to see how rents were billed. – Staff is still researching…
Second, when I made a request for the documents in a folder where the City stores files on the Outdoor Patio Dining Program the documents I received in no true way complied with the request I made.
Third, when I finally spoke to a Staff member on the phone for 31 minutes last week the
Staff member I spoke with provided one false statement after the other about the program and the way the City invoices in a blatant attempt at stonewalling to deny me any information.
This is what I was told that:
- NO invoices of any kind were created in any accounting or payment system for businesses in the program,
- Handwritten payment calculations were provided that detailed amounts charged/owed for 1st time payments,
- There was NO ability to track any payments received under the program in any software program,
- The ONLY information on payments made under the program came from an excel spreadsheet that Staff had access to in order to "track" payments,
- Payments were manually entered into a spreadsheet once a business had made a payment to the Cashier,
- Payment amounts could ONLY be verified by viewing a note in the Permit System where a note may or may not state the total amount paid,
- There was NO easy way to determine what permit number was assigned to any business or payment,
- Letters, not invoices, were sent manually to businesses in the program informing businesses of the amounts owed, and
- All payments were required to be made in person at 630 Garden St and none could be paid by mail,
None of the statements above were remotely accurate which any employee who was in charge of the program would know.
I say this not just as someone who understands that the Public Works Department uses basic tools to track information on services, invoices and payments but as fact after having visited the Cashier at 630 Garden St to ask questions after what I can only describe as a distressing phone call.
In a matter of minutes, the Cashier confirmed that everything I was told was incorrect based on how payments are made under the Outdoor Patio Dining Program and the information in the City's payment processing system.
Here is why:
- To accept payment the Cashier needs to be able to look up a Invoice # or Record #...,
- Each record has a Fee Item # to describe what it is for billing purposes,
- Each record can or does link to an Invoice which has detailed information,
- The Cashier does not enter anything into the Permitting System, and
- Payments can be made in person or by mail.
Why am I asking for this information? The City Council passed the 2 year Fiscal Budget based upon the information it was provided. The Council assumed the information was correct. What if this information was not correct? If this information was not correct what other information wasn’t?
I have asked for the Annual Financial Reports for the Outdoor Patio Dining Program. I have also asked for financial reports, with every line item, for the Public Works Department and the City. These reports should be readily available. They are run annually. Staff members know exactly where they are, but no one seems to want to hand them over. Why?
I have my suspicions as to why no one wants to provide a financial report on the Outdoor Patio Dinning Program. Want to know what it is? The revenue reported as collected wasn’t the amount that should have been collected. Meaning that not all rent was collected as required. This is simply a guess, but I think it is a good one based upon that crazy 31 minute phone call and the document another resident received for the “payment history for the Outdoor Dining Program” that doesn’t match what Staff told the City Council.
Do you think the City Council should demand that these documents and financial reports be provided to me immediately? If the numbers don’t lineup with what was reported by the Public Works Department do you think the City Council needs an investigation into the management of the Outdoor Patio Dining Program? Then weigh in and email the City Council at SBCityCouncil@SantaBarbaraCA.
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