City parks agency turns over books for auditing

It's taken about three years of wrangling, but Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks has finally turned over a year of its financial books to city auditors.

"I'm not jumping up and down yet," Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the council's finance committee, said Wednesday. "We don't know what shape the records are in. But we're pleased that after three years we do have a turnover of books."

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said auditors are going through the department's financial records to determine whether they are detailed enough to be audited. She said City Auditor Robert L. McCarty would make a determination by week's end.

Stokes has been calling for a financial audit of the department, saying it is one of several city agencies that haven't had a complete audit in decades. In November, voters approved a charter amendment that requires the city to audit 13 key agencies every four years.

Meanwhile, at a committee work session Wednesday, new allegations emerged about erroneous city water bills — including overcharging of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Activist Linda Stewart, known by her online moniker "Water Bill Woman," presented two bills she said were wildly erroneous, costing city agencies about $1 million in overcharges. Stewart presented documents that she said showed the water department overbilled Recreation and Parks by $560,000 in Druid Hill Park and overcharged the housing authority's McCulloh Homes by $400,000.

When Deputy Finance Director Henry J. Raymond promised to look into the matter, Stewart wanted to know why the city wasn't catching such errors. "Am I the only one looking for this?" she asked.

"She's been tracking this, and she's been very accurate," Stokes said.

The issue of erroneous water bills drew attention last year when the auditor found that the Department of Public Works had overcharged thousands of customers by at least $9 million. The administration pledged a series of reforms, including increasing the number of meter readers, inspectors and customer service representatives. Last month, city officials said meter readers now estimate about 225 readings per day, down from 1,100 two years ago, a move aimed at cutting errors.

During the meeting, Pratt reiterated that the administration needs to increase funding for auditors. She said last year that she needs about $2.2 million in new funding to perform the audits required by the charter amendment. She said she would need to hire 28 more workers, including a manager, three supervisors and 21 auditors, among others. Her staff typically performs 10 to 20 audits a year.

"We need the money to hire the staff. Otherwise, it's going to be impossible," Pratt said, adding that she has about 100 applicants vying for positions. "You cannot hire an auditor on July 1 and expect them to understand the city's systems," she said.

Pratt objected to a proposal by City Councilman Nick Mosby that would create an audit commission — which would advise city auditors — with members appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

"An audit commissioner appointed by the mayor would jeopardize our independence," Pratt said.

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