The city’s utilities department has a special code it places on accounts where a life-safety issue exists to prevent staff from turning off the water if the account holder doesn’t pay the bill.
More than a year ago, after utilities director Colin Groff ordered a routine audit of all accounts to make sure they were recorded properly in the department’s financial system, the staff discovered that about 500 of the city’s 36,000-some accounts had that “exempt for cut-off” code, but shouldn’t have.
Among those receiving the special treatment, Groff said, were Vice Mayor Mack McCray, then a city commissioner; former Mayor Woodrow Hay; and former commissioner and chair of the Community Redevelopment Agency board, Henderson Tillman Jr.
Tillman, who could not be reached for comment, served from 1996 to 2000 as the District 4 commissioner, ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2003 and served on the CRA board off and on from 2000-2007. McCray and Hay have split the City Commission District 2 seat between them for the past decade, and, along with Dr. Jim DeVoursney, are again candidates for the seat in Tuesday’s election.
The elected officials’ utility department accounts, and those of the rest of the 500, didn’t have any reason listed for receiving the special code, Groff, an assistant city manager, told The Palm Beach Post.
Groff says the 500 probably didn’t know their accounts had the instruction. McCray and Hay agree.
“I tell you that is news to me. I’ve never heard of such a thing as that,” Hay said after The Post told him about the code. “We’ve never had a reason for that to be implemented at my house. We’ve always paid our bill. I don’t know what to say.”
The audit was done between October 2015 and January 2016. Staff removed the code from accounts that didn’t have a listed reason. And Groff says no list of the flagged accounts was made or an investigation done.
Soon after the code was removed, McCray’s water was turned off.
“I had no idea that it was being flagged until my water got turned off,” McCray said. “That’s when they told me they were flagging accounts for elected officials.”
Because there was never a list created of whose accounts were tagged, Groff said staff can’t recall whether or which other elected officials might have had the special designation. But, he said, the accounts of officials elected after 2012 did not receive the code.
He also said he doesn’t know who put the tag on the accounts, or when, but thinks it’s been happening for at least 20 years. Groff became utilities director in 2014. Kofi Boateng, who was director for about seven years until he left in 2014, couldn’t be reached. Former city manager Kurt Bressner, who worked at the city for 11 years until 2011, said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on anything regarding the city because he is retired.
The department has since created a policy that allows only homes where there is a “critical need,” such as a health reason, to avoid having their water immediately turned off for failure to pay their bill.
Groff says that because the 500 accounts were corrected, there was never a need for an investigation.
“Since it was a routine audit and there was nothing found that demonstrated anything else but a mistake by staff or software failure, the accounts were immediately corrected and the manager was notified per policy,” he said.
But after recently hearing of the special treatment, Mayor Steven Grant and former Mayor Jerry Taylor said this should be looked into.
“We don’t know if there was corruption or not,” Grant said.
The benefit to the residents with flagged accounts was not so much free water all the time as it was a pass to pay one’s bill a month or two late without incurring a penalty.
In McCray’s case, he received the special treatment for three properties he owns in the city: on Northwest Fourth Street, Northwest 10th Avenue and Northwest 12th Avenue, according to city records of his past bills, which The Post acquired through a public records request.
The bills, according to the records, weren’t consistently paid at Fourth Street and 10th Avenue homes since about 2010— one of which McCray lives at, and one he says he rented out that his mother was responsible for.
A monthly bill could be about $80 but would end up being more at these homes because of previous balances. The bills very rarely reached a point higher than $300 before the bill was eventually paid, records show.
McCray said his niece, who lives with him, has always been and still is the one to pay the water bill at his home on Northwest Fourth Street, which he’s owned for at least 20 years. He said she changed bank accounts and didn’t correct the billing information with the city. He also doesn’t claim responsibility for the 10th Avenue property. McCray said his mother was in charge of that property.
Tillman, who lived at a home on Bentwater Circle, appeared to have paid his bill on a more regular basis, but still had several times where he carried a previous balance, according to records from 2006 to 2011. The bill never reached more than $240.
Hay, on Northwest 5th Avenue, carried a previous balance only three times from 2006 to 2011, records show.
“They gave special treatment, they shouldn’t have done it,” McCray said of the city utilities department.