Accounting, vandalism at center of Livingston Council meeting

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comNovember 20, 2013 

— A costly spike in vandalism and an outside audit of the city’s finances were at the center of discussion during a City Council meeting this week.

The city had hired Firebaugh-based accountant Bryant Jolley to comb through its books for an annual audit required by state law. Jolley, who was paid $36,000 for his services, recapped his findings and recommendations Tuesday night.

Jolley commended the city for maintaining accurate financial records and called its $87,000 deficit better-than-average. “In this day and age, although we like to see a positive number, a $87,000 deficit for your size and volume is commendable,” Jolley said during the council meeting.

Jolley, who handles audits for 12 cities in Fresno and Calavaras counties, said Livingston began the year with a $1.5 million surplus in its general fund. Several factors, including the $87,000 deficit and a loss of $500,000 in funding from the city’s dissolved redevelopment agency, caused finances to plummet.

Jolley said money from the redevelopment agency helped cover the city’s operational costs, including 5 percent to 10 percent of the salaries of City Manager Jose Ramirez and four other city officials. “Once you remove that funding source, it’s not like you can cut the pay of the officials because they’re still doing the same work,” Jolley said Wednesday.

After losing that funding, Livingston’s general fund balance stood at $935,000, according to Jolley. The city’s assets were $47 million while its liabilities were close to $12 million, the report shows. Assets include cash and investments; liabilities include accounts payable and accrued expense.

The audit covered the city’s finances through June 30, 2013.

Jolley suggested the city use money from its 2011 settlement with two chemical companies – Dow Chemical and Shell – to pay down the debt in its enterprise funds. The city sued the companies over contamination in its water and received about $9.3million.

Livingston’s four enterprise funds – water, domestic wastewater, industrial wastewater and sanitation – each reflect a six-digit negative cash balance as of July 2013. The largest was the industrial wastewater fund, with a $1.3 million deficit, followed by the water enterprise fund with a $1 million deficit.

“I recommended they use the (settlement) money more efficiently by paying off debt now,” Jolley said. “The debt is being charged 4 or 5 percent, but they might only be making 1 percent interest in the settlement money in the bank.”

The City Council also heard about a string of vandalism incidents that targeted bathrooms at city parks over the weekend. Graffiti and damage to locks, door handles and doors was found the Max Foster Sports Complex on Walnut Avenue and at Memorial Park on Main Street.

The vandals broke bathroom lights and set toilet paper dispensers on fire, city officials said Tuesday.

“It’s not so much graffiti as it is flat-out destruction of the facility,” said city Public Works Director Humberto Molina, adding that the department spent $1,000 in a month to repair the locks. “It really hurts the community, especially when we have to lock the bathrooms because people are breaking them.”

Molina said the vandalism, which has occurred sporadically over the past year, affects the community by raising questions about safety and the city’s image.

“We go out and fix them, and a couple weeks later, they’re broken or have graffiti again,” Molina said. “There are so few amenities in our parks system throughout the city, and to have them destroyed like that is disheartening.”

City Manager Jose Ramirez said Tuesday the city will use security cameras to help track down those responsible for the damage.

“We’re going to use one of the cameras we purchased not too long ago and place it in strategic places,” Ramirez said during the meeting. “We can’t afford the continuous maintenance and repair of these things.”

Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez said one of the sergeants in the department has identified fighting graffiti as one of his goals.

“We’re going to try to aggressively pursue these folks and see if we can catch them,” Chavez said. “It’s unfortunate that there’s people in our community that take it upon themselves to destroy public property like this.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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