I-Team: State Swiftmud audit reveals millions in questionable spending

Audit was first by state in 13 years

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. - More than $100 Million a year...that's how much it costs to operate the Southwest Florida Water Management District or "Swiftmud."

The district has protected the area's water supply for four decades, but the I-Team discovered an audit that accuses the agency of wasting your tax dollars.

Read the full audit here .

Swiftmud oversees the water supply for five million people in this part of Florida.

You might not know much about it, but if you're a property owner in Tampa Bay, you're paying its bills.

The owner of a $100,000 home in Tampa pays about $39 a year.

A recent state audit revealed issues at Swiftmud that accounted for nearly $2 Million in questionable spending of our tax dollars.

“It's not a surprise at all,” said Hernando County taxpayer Jeff Burger.

“I work hard for my money. I like to keep whatever money I make for myself. So wasting money is not a good idea,” said Arlene Hoffman, another taxpayer.

The audit, which was the first in 13 years, found issues from small expenses to big ones. The report says the agency paid thousands for internet wireless cards and hotspots that were never used, ordered new $10,000 ATVs while rarely driving the ones on hand and logged less than 10,000 miles a year on most vehicles in the district's fleet.

“We were actually looking at that issue at the same time the auditors came in to do the audit,” said Swiftmud Chief of Staff David Rathke.

He said most of the unused internet devices and under-driven vehicles were the result of a massive layoff of staff that occurred when property tax collections decreased during the recession.

"It's a classic example of government budgetary policy. Spend it, or you won't get it again next year," said State Rep. Daniel Raulerson, who is also a certified public accountant.

Raulerson said he’s concerned about how the agency wasted money and Swiftmud's failure to seek bids for millions of dollars of health and dental insurance policies for 24 years, another major finding in the audit.

"If you look to the statutes, the statutes say 'shall' --- not 'maybe,' not 'might --- but 'shall.' so, in that regard, there was a violation of the statute," Raulerson said.

"It's incumbent upon the inspector general of that agency to look upon those contracts for the last 20 years and try to determine if, in fact, they paid materially more than a competitive amount for the premiums," Raulerson said.

The combined premiums for recent years added up to about $6 million per year, according to the audit report.

“Our team has put a new policy in place to ensure it is bid in the future,” said Rathke, who added the insurance will go out for bids in the upcoming fiscal year.

Raulerson was also especially alarmed at the audit's biggest finding: Swiftmud paid more than $1.8 Million in cash and benefits to 171 laid-off workers.

Auditors maintain that they were “at will” employees, who were not entitled to severance pay under Florida statutes.

Swiftmud, which had the employees sign agreements as part of the severance packages, maintained that constituted a contract, which made the payouts legal.

"I still say that that was one of the absolute best things that this board did was to develop such a package and provide that to our employees," Swiftmud Inspector General Kurt Fritsch told board members during a recent presentation.

"That's a lot of money in anybody's book. And you can't be loose with that kind of change," said Raulerson.

Swiftmud officials said most of the issues in the audit were caused by that reorganization effort, which they say ultimately saved taxpayers $38 million a year.

Raulerson said he thinks cost-cutting should have been done much sooner, since Swiftmud appears to be able to achieve all their goals with the current staffing level.

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