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GONZALES - A state audit of River Parishes Community College says the college may have violated state law when it granted employees a one-time payment of 5 percent of each employee's gross salary earlier this year, costing the college $227,720.

The audit, issued Oct. 2, says the payments were based on the overall performance of the college, rather than specific accomplishments. 

"Therefore, the payments appear to be bonuses, which are prohibited under state law," the report from the state's Legislative Auditor's Office said. 

In a written response to the audit, Charles Cambre, RPCC's vice-chancellor of finance and administration, said the college considered the payments to its employees, made in January 2019, to not be "gratuitous payments," but incentives for continued performance toward 2020 goals set by the state's community and technical college system in 2014.

The goals, a project named "Our Louisiana 2020: Building the Workforce of Tomorrow," include doubling the number of the system's graduates by 2020 and increasing the annual earnings of graduates, as well as increasing student transfers to four-year universities.

In his letter to the legislative auditor, Cambre wrote that the board of supervisors of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System in September 2017 had approved a resolution to "urge and request" the schools to provide salary merit adjustments to faculty and staff, in light of work done toward the "Our Louisiana" goals and other initiatives.

With uncertainty regarding its 2018-2019 budget, River Parishes Community College decided it couldn't commit to such permanent salary increases but "instead provided one-time salary payments ... in the spirit of the board resolution," Cambre wrote the legislative auditor. 

"We had just gone through the merger with the west-side campus in Plaquemine in 2017 and the merger with the campus in Reserve in 2018," RPCC Chancellor Dale Doty said Tuesday.

"Last year, we were not sure what our financial stability would be" following those mergers, Doty said. 

The Plaquemine campus was formerly part of Baton Rouge Community College and the Reserve campus was formerly part of South Central Louisiana Technical College.

"The College has not provided any one-time payments since the payments were made and has no plans to do so again," Cambre wrote to the state legislative auditor last month.

"Should the College consider one-time salary payments in the future, we will seek an opinion of the Attorney General in advance of providing such payments to employees," Cambre wrote. 

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said Tuesday the audit of River Parishes Community College was part of his office's annual audits of all the schools in the community and technical college system.

The community college should "certainly be seeking legal counsel going forward, to see if it's legal and, if it's not, don't do it," Purpera said.

The audit of River Parishes Community College also found that RPCC didn't have adequate controls in place over the assessing and refunding of student tuition fees. The result, for the period of July 2017 through June 2019, was that 13 students were overcharged a total of approximately $5,400, because a course wasn't set up properly in the student enrollment software program, and four students reviewed, out of a small percentage of those who had dropped courses, were not properly refunded a total of about $800.

The college also allowed students with outstanding tuition and fee balances to register in subsequent semesters, the audit said. 

In corrective action, River Parishes Community College identified refunds due to students and issued those refunds before the end of September, Vice Chancellor Cambre said. The college also made changes in its enrollment software so that student accounts accurately reflect the correct outstanding balances, he said in a letter to the auditor. 

And, beginning this fall semester, the college began placing financial holds on student accounts, following fee payment deadline "for anyone not enrolled in a payment plan, thus preventing the enrollment in subsequent semesters," Cambre said.

Email Ellyn Couvillion at ecouvillion@theadvocate.com.