Just weeks after District Attorney Susan Doyle announced there would be no criminal charges in SalaryGate, and the Town of Smithfield paid $30,000 to settle a lawsuit with former Town Manager Eric Williams, a new scandal has emerged at the Smithfield Town Hall.
WaterGate is a new scandal that has alarmed several members of the Smithfield Town Council. At issue is a billing error that cost the town a large sum of money and the reportedly lack of information about the problem from the current town manager. No money was misappropriated but the failure of the manager to address or even admit to the problem is at the heart of the issue.
Smithfield Town Councilman Travis Scott was recently conducting background research on the proposed new 2015-16 fiscal year budget when he uncovered an error that has cost the Town at least $221,190 to date.
Smithfield should be charging a base rate of $6.02 for in-town water customer and $12 for out of town water customers. However, the town is only billing $5.47 and $10.91 respectively.
While discussing his findings at a budget workshop last week, Councilman Scott told Town Manager Paul Sabiston about his findings during while Sabiston reportedly replied he “knew about it.”
When Scott went to the Town Hall the following day to obtain information about electric and water rates, water rate documents were missing. Scott said the Town manager has failed to address his questions and respond to emails. Emails to Sabiston, Scott said, are being answered by others at the Town Hall.
And even though Scott is an elected council member, he tells WTSB News he has had to file Public Records Request, which is how the media obtain documents from government agencies, just to get basic information from the Town Hall.
While the rate discrepancy pre-dates the hiring of Sabiston in 2012, Scott said the town manager has not been transparent. “The manager should be informing us. We’ve just overcome one scandal. We don’t want another.”
Scott said Sabiston has still not turned over all the information requested.
In the current budget proposal, base in town water rates would jump to $9 and out of town rates $15 per month. Scott believes the significant hike could have been avoided had the town been collecting the water rates on the books.
“I have reservations about his leadership,” Councilman Scott said when asked about Sabiston’s handling of the water billing issue.
Town Councilman Perry Harris said he was glad Councilman Scott made the issues public at the June 2nd meeting. “The council has know this since last weeks budget meeting. We just felt like we owed it to the citizens to let them know what had gone on.”
“I don’t exactly understand how this happened, but it was either an oversight, mistake, or lack of paying attention to what we’re approving in the budget,” Harris said.
Harris echoed Scott’s concerns about how the manager has responded.
“Yes, I am concerned. When this was brought to his attention during the meeting, he made the statement he was aware of it. When he became aware of it, I am not clear. But he did not make us aware of it. I would have certainly have made sure if there was a discrepancy, I would have let my town council or mayor know.”
“I think (Sabiston) has a responsibility to keep us informed. He told us he knew about it but he did not go any further. He does not think he has done any wrong. He indicated we had never discussed it. We approved it in the last three budgets at that rate. What signifies a change? Is approving a budget not enough for it to be changed?” Councilman Harris asked.
Harris said he was also aware of Councilman Scott having trouble getting information about the billing issue.
“It is my understanding that he had tried to get information and has not been able to get a clear picture. (The) records on the books at town hall are not complete and the rate schedule is missing from the books.”
Harris said the information about the water rate discrepancy should be made public. Reportedly some other members of the town council did not want the information released. “It’s puzzling to me. I am somewhat taken back anyone on the council would think we are not doing the right thing by making citizens aware of what had gone on. I believe in telling the truth.”
“If the town manager, department heads and staff were not paying attention to what we are passing, it makes some of us wonder if our staff is paying attention to us,” Harris said in a phone interview
“The last thing we need is more bad publicity for Smithfield,” Harris told WTSB News, “But what is more important, looking good or being forthright.”
Councilman Emery Ashley said he is unclear to the many aspects of Councilman Scott’s concerns. “Was there a rate increase that was not implemented? Did the town council specifically pass a rate increase? If so, when? Or, was the fee schedule a typo, which has been carried forward for years? I do not know and I have not heard a definitive answer.”
“Based upon (Councilman Scott’s) presentation and if there was a rate increase that was not implemented, there was no cost to the Town, and the citizens were not charged with higher fees.”
Councilmen Scott and Harris both agreed in their interviews with WTSB News that because of previous issues in the past few years in Smithfield, they had an obligation to let the public know this had occurred.