By Dan Moffett
A county inspector general’s audit has concluded that South Palm Beach improperly billed its residents for $170,072 in sewer rate increases during a three-year period beginning in October 2016.
The Palm Beach County watchdog, in a report released on March 22, found the town did not adequately notify the water customers of rate increases and did not inform them of the annual meeting during which hikes were considered.
The problems arose during a four-year period in which South Palm Beach went through a succession of four town managers — before the hiring of current manager Robert Kellogg, who took over in 2019.
In reviewing its sewer billing, the town uncovered another $285,431 in improper charges from 2018 to 2020. All told, the town will refund roughly $455,000 to customers through credits on their sewer bills this year.
“The mayor and council feel strongly about maintaining transparency,” Kellogg said. “That’s why we’re returning the additional charges after 2019.”
The inspector found “no indication of willful misconduct,” but did cite relatively minor deficiencies in the town’s overall financial operations that resulted in another $34,000 of sloppy or ill-advised practices.
Residents can expect to see credits to their sewer bills for the next year. The biggest return goes to The Barclay condominiums for $48,465, to be divided among its residents. An individual homeowner could expect to get back anywhere between roughly $230 and $500.
The town has promised to tighten its financial management and accounting. The IG report, which was the result of a routine audit, said the town’s staff “has been proactive and has already taken corrective action on a number of items.”
In other business:
• On March 9, the Town Council decided to move the public comment period at meetings from the beginning of the agenda — where it has been for the last five years — to near the end.
The vote was 3-2. Mayor Bonnie Fischer, Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb and Councilman Ray McMillan backed the move. Councilmen Bill LeRoy and Mark Weissman voted no.
“If people come to the meeting and have something to express, they don’t have to sit through the whole meeting to express it,” Weissman said in expressing his dissent. “Plus, we have the time to respond to them.”
LeRoy argued that members of the public can shape the course of a meeting if they are allowed to speak early on.
“They can influence us at the beginning,” LeRoy said. “At the end, they’re just grading us and that does nobody any good.”
Fischer said the public has ample opportunity to comment during the meeting as individual agenda items come up for debate and voting. “I ask for public comments after each action item,” Fischer said. “That’s when they can really discuss what’s going on.”
• “It’s a go for April,” Fischer said of the town’s dune stabilization project.
The council voted 5-0 to transfer to the town of Palm Beach the existing easements from a previous proposed beach project with Palm Beach County. That plan to install groins along the town’s coastline was abandoned two years ago because of rising cost estimates and the objections of neighboring communities.
The new, less ambitious project calls for partnering with Palm Beach to truck in dredged sand and fortify the town’s damaged dune line. The price tag is between $700,000 and $900,000, and work should be completed within a month.
Fischer and council members praised Kellogg for getting the easements from condo dwellers and making the transfer to Palm Beach happen.