MARCO ISLAND — City Manager Jim Riviere hopes some last steps he is taking will finally separate the city’s utility company operations from running day-to-day city government. One of those steps reassigned Patricia Bliss and removed her from the city finance director position.
On Monday, Riviere said her new title would be senior staff advisor. An April 6 memorandum sent to Marco Island’s City Council and city department directors stated Bliss had been reassigned to special projects. The memo also named Robert Lange as acting director of finance.
Included in “special projects” were issues raised in a Revenue Sufficiency Study by Burton & Associates including “deficiencies identified in the Burton study.” The memo also stated Bliss would be assigned to prepare for upcoming rate hearing workshops.
Earlier this year, City Council Chairman Larry Magel asked for an independent audit of utility funds by the Collier County Clerk. On Thursday, he said he had not seen the results of that audit.
Magel acknowledged that he received the April 6 memo from Riviere but said it was sent to council as a courtesy. Bliss had been asked by council to address the Burton study and a $4.2 million discrepancy brought to light by the firm.
Bliss explained to council on April 16 that internal loans were used to meet a Septic Tank Replacement Program bond payment due on Oct. 1. The city billed residents $2.6 million for the STRP on or around Sept. 30. Payments were due by mid-to-late October. The overlap did not allow funds to be received before the bond payment was due and accounted for the discrepancy in the revenue study.
If the city had not lent itself the money, Bliss said, a short-term loan would have been necessary costing the city interest payments. She suggested a minimum fund balance be available in the water and sewer fund so the issue would not arise again.
Riviere said Monday he was satisfied the issue was over and no funds were missing. He also wanted to avoid the possibility that it could happen again.
“We know what happened but we don’t know the root cause of the problem,” Riviere said. “The brightest and best brains have combed through the information and this instance is solved.”
Riviere said he wants to have the city’s utilities totally freestanding by the end of September and before the city’s new fiscal budget year begins on Oct. 1.
“We have years of administration ahead of us in these (Septic Tank Replacement Program) districts,” Riviere said. “There was a time when purchase orders didn’t even have names or numbers. We need to continue to examine what happened in the past.”
Riviere would like to prepare for the possibility of a public-private partnership for the operation of utilities. The issue has come before city council in utility rate workshops and will be addressed in upcoming council meetings.
Bliss was hired in April 2009 by City Manager Steve Thompson, succeeding Finance Director Bill Harrison. Prior to coming to Marco Island she was finance director for the City of North Miami Beach, a suburb of Miami incorporated in 1927.
Her immediate challenges rested in the fact that Marco Island’s city government had a short history, being incorporated in 1997. Many policies and procedures were not in place and needed to be adopted by city management, council and through public hearings.
One of her biggest issues was accounting for STRP receivables and liabilities. Once a single fund, STRP streams were divided into 9 sub-funds in 2010. Bliss once likened untangling STRP money to trying to untangle snarled fishing line.
“It sounds like a cliché but she inherited what she came into when she joined the city,” said Tom Kirstein, chairman of the Audit Advisory Board. “Her predecessors set the table she had to deal with.”
Kirstein has been chairman of the audit committee since June 2010 and participated in three city financial audits. All three audits were certified by an independent company. He said his committee did not work with the Burton study and would not have been involved in any rate planning.
Acting Director of Finance Robert Lange worked for the city as a budget analyst before being moved. On Monday, Riviere said he brought a great deal of education and experience to the job.
Riviere said with the new position Lange received a raise in pay, but at this time the position and raise are considered temporary.