Protecting your tax dollars: Seminole commissioner makes changes to prevent inappropriate spending

Changes come after draft of Winter Springs audit showing improper spending released

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla.Seminole County’s preliminary audit of Winter Springs claimed the city misspent special tax money, but it also exposed a bigger problem: There aren’t enough safeguards in place to ensure proper spending across the county.

The draft audit recommended “more internal administrative controls are needed to increase transparency and protect the citizens’ tax dollars.”

“More needs to be done to ensure adequate communication and transparency,” the audit shows. “This ordinance and inter-local agreement has no controls to deliver on promises made to the public.”

State Sen. Jason Brodeur and Seminole County Commissioner Jay Zembower called for state and county audits, respectively, after citizens complained about bridges that failed during last year’s hurricanes that had not been previously replaced.

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The bridge over Howell Creek on Northern Way was repaired and reopened this year. It’s one of several that Winter Springs identified for repair or replacement in 2014 using Seminole County penny sales tax revenue.

Seminole County, its school district, Winter Springs and all seven of the county municipalities—Lake Mary, Longwood, Oviedo, Winter Springs, Altamonte Springs, Casselberry and Sanford—said in an interlocal agreement they would use their share of the penny sales tax solely for improving infrastructure, a requirement under state law.

But the audit done on Winter Springs’ spending showed in a draft released last week the city bought 20 police cars with some of the tax money.

Zembower said the draft audit raises questions about oversight.

“And I don’t perceive and haven’t heard of any other problems in other municipalities but in light of what we discovered at the city of Winter Springs, I think as a taxpayer there’s going to be a question that’s in everybody’s mind, ‘Hey, is this more widespread than just Winter Springs?’” Zembower said.

Zembower said the interlocal agreement doesn’t do enough to ensure the penny sales tax revenue is spent the way the voters intended—only on infrastructure.

“I don’t think it’s as all-encompassing as it should have been,” Zembower said.

Zembower said he’s asking the Seminole County manager to amend the interlocal agreement to require a discussion during commission meetings if cities want to change how they spend the tax money, instead of placing the change on the consent agenda, as Winter Springs did, which often does not evoke discussion.

“It’s not a big burden to do that, it’s really not,” Zembower said. “The people who approved this deserve to know and understand what’s happening. That’s the taxpayers.”

Also, since cities audit themselves annually, Zembower wants the yearly audits expanded to look at how the tax money is being spent.

“Why not consider putting a provision in the interlocal that says when each of us do our annual audit, have that auditor do a separate audit of the infrastructure sales tax revenue to make sure it’s in compliance?” Zembower said. “Seems pretty simple to me. The auditors are already there, they’ve got the numbers, they got all the numbers from the cities, the counties and school board, and when that’s done, share that with all the cities and the updated projects lists.”

In order to make the changes to the sales tax interlocal agreement, all cities and the school board would have to agree.

Oviedo Mayor Megan Sladek said she would agree.

“I’m absolutely OK with this, more transparency and additional layer of safeguards,” Sladek said. “One thing we’ve done in Oviedo is every few years shift whose eyes (which auditors) are looking at it. It’s not required but I think it’s a wise policy.”

Altamonte Springs City Manager Franklin Martz said he and Mayor Pat Bates “have already agreed.”

“Mayor Bates and I have already discussed this with Commissioner Zembower, as well as other government CEOs in Seminole County (the county manager, other city managers and the SCPS superintendent),” Martz said. “We are absolutely on board with this step toward additional transparency. We think this is a great idea and this will be part of our annual independent audit. The cost is minimal, but the importance of transparency makes this invaluable. We do not have a consent agenda. Never have. If it is important enough to be on our agenda, then it is on our agenda.”

Longwood Mayor Tony Boni also agreed.

“I would support, if requested, including a review of penny sales tax revenue expenditures during the city’s annual independent audit,” Boni said. “I would support, if requested, holding public discussions during the regular business part of the agenda about changes to the original planned uses.”

Casselberry Mayor David Henson agreed as well.

“I personally don’t see a problem with what is recommended,” Henson said. “I am confident our city commission will agree with any reasonable requirements,” Henderson said.

Winter Springs Mayor Kevin McCann’s support was conditional.

“This leads to so many questions,” McCann said. “Changes like this have a systematic process that would need to be negotiated by all parties involved. I would seek input from the other elected officials prior to making a decision. My personal acceptance would also be under the condition that the county government be under the same audit requirements as the municipalities.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.