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Discretionary spending under scrutiny in report

Editor’s Note: Over the next several days, The Selma Times-Journal will publish a series of articles reviewing the report handed down to the city by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, which reviewed City of Selma policies and practices between Oct. 1, 2015, through August 20, 2019. This is the third article.

Among the multitude of issues the Alabama Department of Public Examiners laid out in its report on the City of Selma were concerns over the way contracts were being handled and the way expenditures were being made, some without proper bidding or documentation and others that appear to be a misuse of city funds.

Where contracts were concerned, the examiners’ report takes issue with the fact that Selma City Council President Corey Bowie was given authority via a September 2018 ordinance to sign off on contracts in the absence of Selma Mayor Darrio Melton, who had made it policy to simply ignore work orders and other requests submitted by the Selma City Council.

The report states that the ordinance is in violation of the Code of Alabama 1975, despite the fact that multiple council members have asserted that the Alabama League of Municipalities informed them that such an ordinance was legal.

Selma City Councilman Sam Randolph said he broached the subject with examiners and was told that the council has no recourse but to suffer the mayor’s obstruction.

“I just disagree with that opinion,” Randolph said. “All of the cities around here are changing things. You’ve got to be able to adapt to changes in society.”

Randolph sees the assertions in the examiners report, which have led Melton to assert that all council-approved contracts should be “null and void,” as an attack on the council’s proactive approach to keeping the city afloat.

“You’ve got somebody in the mayor’s office trying to destroy this city, then the council steps in trying to save it and we get penalized,” Randolph said. “This report is kind of one-sided.”

Bowie agrees, recalling that the council had to override the mayor’s veto to get the ordinance approved.

“It was a problem where…things weren’t getting signed off on in a timely manner,” Bowie said. “So, we took this alternative action.”

Additionally, the report found that contracts on file in the city finance office were incomplete and were executed after the work described in the contract had been completed.

Where expenditures were concerned, the report found there was “inadequate documentation provided to support the public purpose of funds paid to private groups or individuals” and that contracts were paid “before services were rendered by paying half of the cost of a project at the beginning” and the rest “upon completion of the project.”

The report took particular exception with $138,000 payment to an unlicensed contractor for the demolition of a city-owned building – the council approved the contractor at a March 2018 meeting based on paperwork that stated the contractor met all required criteria.

The report also found that the city regularly failed to comply with the Alabama Competitive Bid Law, which is required to be observed for all projects over $15,000.

Among the expenditures the report lists should have fallen under that law are the following:

• Fuel purchases from a single vendor totaled more than $274,500 in 2016, more than $246,300 in 2017 and more than $292,700 in 2018;

• A tractor was purchased for the City of Selma Recreation Department at a cost of nearly $20,000;

• A fireworks and laser light show was purchased by the City of Selma Planning and Development Department for $15,000.

“The city did not have procedures in place to ensure expenditures for goods and services involving $15,000 or more were competitively bid and to ensure documentation was retained in accordance with state statute,” the report stated. “As a result, the city did not ensure a fair and competitive purchasing process was followed in the awarding of these contracts.”

The report also finds that the city expended funds in excess of $50,000 for work on the Riverfront Amphitheater without advertising for sealed bids, a violation of the state’s Public Works Law, which also prohibits breaking projects up to undercut the $50,000 price tag requirement.

Between Aug. 20, 2016, and March 10, 2017, the city spent $146,400 for public works projects in the following manner:

• A payment of $49,950 was made to “Vendor A” for dirt work, sod and irrigation at the amphitheater between Aug. 30, 2016, and Sept. 15, 2016;

• A payment of $38,500 was made to “Vendor B” for vi-ditches to drain water off the amphitheater parking lot, the installation of a black, six-foot fence extending from the George P. Evans Reception Center to the amphitheater entrance, the installation of sprinkler heads for the new sod, the installation of sidewalks around the seating area and the addition of three gates between Feb. 9, 2017, and Feb. 23, 2017;

• A payment of $48,900 was made to “Vendor B” for 80 to 100 loads of dirt at the amphitheater between Jan. 26, 2017, and Feb. 23, 2017;

• A payment of $1,450 was made to “Vendor B” for fence repairs at the amphitheater on March 10, 2017.

“Based on review of the minutes, it appears the city awarded projects in amounts just under thresholds established by the Public Works Law and split costs between projects to circumvent the requirements of the Public Works Law,” the report sated. “The city’s decision to split the project between two vendors and various payments led to the city’s noncompliance with the Public Works Law.”

The report also found that multiple emergency projects were improperly handled when the city failed to receive bids, failed to enter into a contract for the work to be performed and failed to provide proof of advertisements.

Specifically, the report cites a $70,700 emergency sewer repair on Crescent Hill Drive and a $74,500 emergency sewer repair on Oak Street.

The report also took exception with discretionary spending practices in the city, which were often made without documentation describing the public purpose of expending the funds.

Some spending was deemed “unallowable” in the report, including the following:

• A donation was made to a local church’s building fund;

• Donations were made to scholarship funds and organizations that provide scholarship funds;

• Funds were used for “couples” tickets to a masquerade ball, including “hors d’oeuvres and drinks” and the tickets included two complimentary drink tickets per guest;

• Funds were used to pay expenses related to a trip to the Virgin Islands;

• Funds were used to pay expenses related to a council member’s attendance at an Auburn University vs. Alabama A&M University football game;

• Funds were expended on pizza for a council meeting, but there was no council meeting on the date of the purchase.

For his part, Bowie asserts that many of those expenditures were made with good intent – the pizza was ordered by the council during the interviews for Chief of the Selma Fire Department (SFD) and made available to everyone in attendance; the scholarship contribution was simply the council’s effort to support local efforts to further education; the masquerade ball tickets were likely comped for a council-hosted event.

“I can tell you this,” he said. “Nobody from the council went to the Virgin Islands.”

According to Selma City Councilwoman Susan Youngblood, the Virgin Islands trip was for a Selma student who was tapped by Auburn University to attend a scholars bowl there – the council pitched in a total of $130 to help pay for the student’s travel expenses.

“For a child to represent the Queen City of the Black Belt at an international fare is an amazing opportunity,” Youngblood said.

According to Randolph, the expense paid in relation to a college football game, which he took a group of young men from the Selma Housing Authority (SHA) to, was $100 for lunch.

“I didn’t spend any city money on tickets,” Randolph said. “I truly don’t think I’m in any kind of violation. My intent was to do something positive for these young men.”

The report also found multiple instances where oil lease funds, which are required by law to be spent on capital improvements, were improperly spent, including the following:

• Two expenditures totaling $12,000 for security cameras in a private subdivision;

• An expenditure of $2,000 for 1,500 pounds of catfish;

• Eleven expenditures totaling $39,600 for grass cutting, bush-hogging and “beautification” in multiple wards;

• Three expenditures totaling $17,300 for flat-weeding or clearing the riverbank;

• Five expenditures totaling $8,150 for tree trimming or removal.

Throughout the report, the department calls for the city to adopt policies and procedures that will ensure its compliance with state law moving forward – Selma City Councilwoman Miah Jackson, who has harped on financial oversight throughout her tenure on the council, agreed.

“The finances of the city is the council’s responsibility, despite whether the administration or other city leaders will not allow council members access to the information,” Jackson said. “There should be consequences – whether legal or administrative – for city employees who circumvent the council’s ordinances and/or resolutions governing the city’s finances. It is imperative, therefore, that the council review every expense with supporting documents, [including] payroll with timesheets and other supporting documentation, all contracts, purchase orders, invoices and discretionary spending.”