The state Legislative Auditor’s Office has found that Harahan under previous mayors failed to collect some property taxes, improperly extended benefits to City Council members and some staffers, and made payments to contractors that weren’t supported by proper documentation.
Those and other findings released Monday were part of an investigative audit requested by current Mayor Tina Miceli, who succeeded Vinny Mosca in January. She said she found the city’s records incomplete and stacked in boxes, half-empty filing cabinets and, in a few cases, shredded inside garbage bags.
Among the audit’s findings:
The city failed to collect $163,475 in delinquent property taxes and interest on 333 properties since 1995 and has no system in place to conduct tax sales for adjudicated properties.
The city improperly used $47,588 in public money to provide health insurance benefits to ineligible city employees and former employees since May 1, 2012.
The city improperly paid $58,404 in health and life insurance premiums for City Council members after Mosca ordered the benefits extended to them in May 2013.
The city paid $45,300 to five contract inspectors in the Regulatory Department since 2012. The inspectors were paid flat monthly fees without invoices or any record of how much work they performed. They also were reimbursed for $9,120 for fuel they didn’t back up with mileage reports, and there was no legal requirement to reimburse three of the five.
The city violated the Local Government Budgeting Act when Mosca left office without having submitted a budget for the 2015 fiscal year.
The audit also found instances of budgets being submitted late; inadequate and outdated contracts with vendors; missing public records, including bid records, receipt books and invoices, which may violate state law; and unrecorded employee pay raises.
“In general, city records were poorly organized and in some instances not available,” the auditors said.
The report included responses from Miceli and Mosca, who was mayor for 12 of the past 20 years. Paul Johnston, now a Jefferson Parish councilman, was mayor from 2003 through 2010, during which time Mosca was on the City Council. All but two of the major findings involve issues specific to Mosca’s time as mayor, from 1995 through 2002 and 2011 through 2014.
Mosca defended his record Monday, saying a meager tax base and a small administrative staff required a case-by-case approach to get results that constituents wanted.
“As mayor, I was user-friendly,” he said. “I’m content to know that I tried to provide what I could to improve the quality of life of the citizens during my administration.”
Mosca said he tried to recoup delinquent property taxes through liens when properties were sold or handed down through succession, rather than setting up a system for tax sales.
Miceli wrote that leaving those taxes unpaid is unfair to those who pay their taxes, but Mosca said the properties involved represented a small percentage of the tax base, and in many cases, the owners were elderly.
“I really felt trying to do a tax sale on those kind of people would only result in people from outside the city trying to come in and turn them into rental property,” he said.
On the finding that the city paid $24,382 in benefits to 16 employees during their first three months of employment, when they were ineligible for them, Mosca said they were police officers and firefighters and he thought they deserved it.
Of the 11 workers who got benefits after leaving their jobs, he said one case was court-ordered and others were done as an agreement to avoid litigation.
As for the benefits he extended to council members by executive order, in violation of a state law that requires it to be done by ordinance, Mosca pointed out the matter did get implicit council approval when the council passed the annual budget, which included the expenditure.
Mosca said he never minded that expenses in the Regulatory Department, which handles code enforcement, outstripped revenue because he didn’t think the office needed to make money and he never wanted to increase fees.
He said extending fuel reimbursements to the department’s contract workers was part of a compensation package designed to attract and maintain workers.
There was no need to have the regulatory workers document their time because they received flat fees, Mosca said. The audit, however, said their contracts were simply two-line documents that didn’t specify their payment, service, performance or scope of work.
The audit criticized other “inadequate and outdated contractual agreements between the city and its vendors,” noting that one for engineering services was signed in 1997. Auditors also found several one-page contracts with few or no details on payment, service, performance or reporting terms.
“There’s no prohibition about a contract having too few words,” Mosca said.
As for instances where documentation was missing, he said, “I don’t know of any record missing that’s relevant to anything.” He said he got permission from the state on two occasions to shred old agendas, checks and court records.
Miceli said the city, which brought many of the issues to the state’s attention, has already begun trying to come up with procedures to meet the report’s recommendations.
Mosca said Miceli had the right to request the audit but that complying with its findings will be a challenge.
“Every day in Harahan is a Band-Aid approach,” he said.
Johnston said he had not seen the audit and couldn’t comment on the findings that pertain to his time in office.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.