County manager problem solving

........................................................................................................................................................................................

A four-page memo from the county manager brought several "inadequate situations or practices existing in the county" to the attention of the county commissioners.

During the discussion portion of the Wednesday commission meeting, Commissioner Georgia Otero-Kirkham brought up the memo, saying the commissioners would be "extremely surprised as to what's going on in the county.

"Things that have been going on for several years that Bruce (Swingle, county manager) has discovered," she said.

One such discovery was an annual payment of $7,615 to RICOH for four printers. The contract on that equipment hasn't been reviewed or renewed since 1991.

"Do we still have them," asked Commission Chairman Donald Holliday.

Otero-Kirkham said she didn't know and would be surprised if they were still running. The county has paid out $159,915 on the defunct contract over the last 21 years.

The memo from Swingle said Valencia County Purchasing Agent Mike Vinyard has identified many deficiencies in his assessment of the county's procurement processes. The printers were just one example of the many untracked contracts the county has due to a lack of a record/filing system for contracts to track expiration dates.

Swingle wrote in the memo that Vinyard is usually made aware of expiring contracts by vendors, rather than internal county controls, and said known records were "in disarray."

"Departments are making small purchases to get around formal purchasing processes," Swingle wrote. "This practice is expensive and violates the procurement code. Due to the work load, technical complexity and lack of infrastructure in purchasing, the department is in need of an additional person."

To fix the problem, Swingle wrote that staff would continue to assess past practices, develop improved processes, draft appropriate standard operating procedures and continue to conduct business. With commission support, staff will hire an additional person for purchasing, Swingle wrote.

Commissioner Mary Andersen said Otero-Kirkham's comments supported the need for an additional purchasing person.

"Small purchases take up a lot of time. Mr. Vinyard doesn't have time to hunt down all the small purchase contracts," Andersen said.

Otero-Kirkham said the memo also addressed the fact that the county had eight different credit cards or accounts at various retailers and banks — Conoco, Walmart, Bank of the West, Home Depot, Staples, Sears, Wright Express (a fuel card) and Lowes.

In the last fiscal year, those eight accounts or cards totaled $100,000 in expenditures, Swingle's memo said.

"Many supervisors/employees have made copies of these card/account numbers and orders directly, thus bypassing the procurement process," Swingle wrote in the memo. "In addition, the county received numerous statements for varying purchases from unknown or difficult to determine departments. Expenditure reconciliation is difficult to complete."

To address the multiple credit accounts issue, Swingle said he was proposing the county go to a P-Card, or purchasing card, system through a bank. With a P-Card system, Swingle said the county would receive detailed charge statements that could be tracked by the department.

Otero-Kirkham congratulated Swingle on discovering and beginning to address the issues.

"We need to do something. That's why we don't have enough money to give employees a raise," she said. "We're paying for four printers that might not even work."

Commissioner Ron Gentry said most of the issues raised in Swingle's memo weren't new ones.

"On the credit card issue, we've had it used for fraud in the past. We decided to clean it up and didn't follow through," Gentry said. "And with all due respect, three years ago the county manager had 15 to 20 printers throughout the county that he wanted to consolidate. But county employees fought so hard to keep their own printers, we turned a blind eye.

"We have given direction before, but we haven't followed through. Now if it's in written form, maybe we can follow through with them. I'm glad we've got this out."

Gentry reiterated that these problems were "not new, they've been addressed. We can go through each one and find the problem and what we did to correct it. We spent a lot of money. I think what it is we as a commission need to keep an eye on is follow through. We've addressed these (issues) but when commissions change, policies change."

Andersen called the problem "endemic," adding that by not having consensus on the commission and putting forth a united voice, the employees don't know what to do.

"If they hear from me that I want something, then Lawrence (Romero) tells them something else, and the two things don't agree, employees are brought to a standstill," Andersen said.

Holliday asked if these issues could be a result of each department "doing its own thing that is unique in its own way. Are you looking to find one shoe that fits them all?"

Swingle said the county doesn't have the infrastructure to track a lot of information.

"We have never had a central repository for contracts. If Mr. Vinyard needs one, he looks far and wide through the entire government," Swingle said. "He usually finds out about the contract expiring from the vendor or just stumbles upon it in a file.

"We have hired people to do certain jobs but we haven't set up the infrastructure," he said. "We have people doing certain jobs but we've diluted it so we get an inferior product."

Otero-Kirkham asked if the new software system from Tyler would help with some of the problems. Swingle said it might be of some help, but for the most part, it was a matter of "garbage in, garbage out. Some employees don't have a card, just a copy of one or just an account that charges things to the county. That can't happen."

Andersen said there needed to be standard operating procedures written up for every department, even departments like the clerk's office.

"If a new employee comes in, and they don't like how it's done, they just do it another way," she said. "In departments like the clerk's office, something as simple as filing a deed needs to have a written procedure.

"Yes, we have people who have been there for 38 years, but eventually they will be gone and the next person will need to know how. And it's harder to get around if it's written down, harder to ignore."

Holliday asked Swingle if it was true that the county was paying insurance on vehicles it no longer owned.

Swingle said the county's fleet of about 270 vehicles was an "absolute mess," with zero preventative maintenance being done, contributing to the deterioration of the entire fleet.

"We have about 270 cars reported to the insurance company, but we don't have that many. Some are completely out of service. We are paying premiums on some vehicles that are not working," he said. "There is no preventative maintenance. We are driving them till they break and spending larger amounts of money repairing them."

In Swingle's memo, he indicated the county spent $231,792 in maintenance and repair costs last year.

"However, most of the cost was related to repairs (breakdowns) not maintenance," he wrote.

Each department is currently responsible for its own vehicles, a practice that is "void of accountability."

Other issues identified in the memo included the condition of the county's 29 buildings, which are in "various states of neglect," staff turnover, the lack of funding and technical expertise in the road department, the need for a receptionist at the animal control shelter due to high call volume, employee records being misplaced, misfiled or missing all together and employees receiving worker's compensation and being allowed to use sick leave concurrently.

In the memo, Swingle said the most frequent complaint he received from the public was about code enforcement operations. Most of the complaints are related to the department's inability to get properties cleaned in a reasonable period.

"After reviewing the matter, it appears code enforcement is doing their job, that is, staff observes or receives a complaint. They investigate the matter and issue the appropriate citation," Swingle wrote.

"Cases then get protracted in the court system. The public believes these delays are the result of inadequate code enforcement activities and complain; however, the delays are neither the responsibility nor fault of staff."

To remedy the situation, Swingle wrote staff will update all interested parties, including complaining parties, on a regular basis and inform them of future court dates.

"This practice will keep the parties informed and afford them an opportunity to observe the court process," he wrote. "This practice will also allow interested parties to see problematic areas and address them with the responsible party, the courts."

Swingle said he would bring a concrete plan back to the commissioners to address the issues raised in the memo for further consideration and action.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.