Four South Florida cities that conducted independent audits of street lights run by Florida Power & Light scored $388,000 in credits - charges for hundreds of lights that don't exist.
The cities - Tamarac, Miramar, Pompano Beach and most recently, Coconut Creek - hired West Palm Beach-based Danvers Consultation and Research Firm consultant to do the audits and negotiate with FPL for credit.
The independent audits are in addition to those done by the utility company.
FPL audits streetlights every five years to correct outdated inventories, said FPL spokesman Mayco Villafana. After its audits, FPL has charged cities more and returned money – all without consultants.
Cities typically pay FPL not just for the electricity they use for the street lights, but also for the upkeep and installation of lights. Some cities, like Fort Lauderdale, do spot checks"of FPL's audits, but few do full inventories.
The number of street lights in each city changes, whether because of new construction, severe storms or car accidents, Villafana said. That's why the utility works with cities to correct old inventories, and "it can take time as both sides iron out their differences."
"There are many factors that impact the margin of error. The level of growth in that city, the impact of new construction," Villafana said.
For instance, Villafana said FPL's audit in Fort Lauderdale resulted in the city receiving a credit of $185,478 last year. A city spokeswoman said the audit found the utility had charged the city for 500 lights that didn't exist and had not charged for 200 other lights.
FPL hasn't completed its audit of all Palm Beach County cities, but West Palm Beach officials said FPL's recent audit found the city owes the utility an additional $29,446 for street lights.
In total, FPL returned $544,784 to Broward cities, most of it to the four cities that hired Danvers. His audits that found FPL sometimes charged two or three times for a single light or charged higher for low-wattage bulbs. In one case, a city was charged for street lights that FPL maps indicated were located in the middle of a canal.
Officials from the cities that did independent audits said it wasn't easy getting the utility to agree to credits.
"It was two years of everyone making sure their interests were at the foremost," said Coconut Creek City Manager Dave Rivera.
After Tamarac hired Danvers, an FPL representative e-mailed Public Works Director Jack Strain to say the utility had done its own audit and found it was undercharging the city, not over-charging it, for street lights.
But Strain persisted. "The idea of FPL doing a self audit was not acceptable," Strain said. "They obviously had a vested interest in the outcome."
Errors in street light counts are common, said Joe Seeber, of TriStem Consulting in Hewitt, Tex., a utility critic who has recovered millions in utility overcharges for cities across the country. But he said when there are errors with more than 4 percent of the lights, it's considered "out of line" – based on his company's experience.
"Street light bills are always paid with taxpayer money. My thought is that it's the fiduciary responsibility of the city council or whoever approves them to make sure the bills are accurate," Seeber said. The error rate for the four Broward County cities ranged from 4 percent to 10 percent.
Pompano Beach was the first in the county to hire Danvers a few years ago. The audit found the city was being overcharged for 490 of the city's 6,187 lights, said Sandra King, a spokeswoman for the city. In 2006, the city received a $65,225 credit for charges going back a little over a year. "I think it is very safe to assume the inventory was inaccurate for more than 1.3 years; however the only document we could present to justify the inaccurate streetlight count was the inventory we completed with Mr. Danvers' support," King said.
Tamarac officials heard about Pompano's audit and hired Danvers. At first, FPL said the city owed $394 a month. After the city's audit, FPL agreed to provide a credit going back five years. But when the city's utility director found an incorrect inventory of FPL street lights from 2001, FPL agreed to a $200,000 credit for 425 lights. The city agreed to start paying for 42 lights that old inventories hadn't accounted for, Villafana said.
Miramar received a credit from FPL of $52,464 last year for problems with 183 lights, including 35 lights on a small residential street that has only 13. An FPL map of some lights showed they were located in the middle of a canal near the city's water treatment plant. As part of the agreement, the city started paying for 146 lights that it wasn't charged for before, Villafana said.
Coconut Creek received about $70,000 credit for 121 lights after a city audit turned up errors, Rivera said. But Villafana said FPL's audit also found 155 lights that the city wasn't paying for. The city still received a credit because most of the undercharges were for streetlights that the city only pays electricity on while most of the overcharges include maintenance costs, according to Danvers.
Villafana said FPL reviewed Danvers' audits from some cities and found some "incomplete and inaccurate" findings. Villfana noted that Danvers – who charged each city from $9,000 to $37,000– makes money off the audits "whereas we do this for free for the cities."
An independent auditor's fee "is a small price to pay for money that likely never would have been recouped in the first place," said Pete Sepp, a vice president for the National Taxpayers Union.
Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 and jpatel@SunSentinel.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun