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Enlightening Savings

by Pete Sepp / /

It turns out that long before there were “phantom congressional districts” and “phantom zip codes” identified as receiving federal stimulus funds (ht: Rio Grande Foundation Reporter Jim Scarantino), something equally strange had surfaced at the local government level: phantom street lights.

I first became aware of this issue late last year, when yours truly was briefly mentioned in a Florida Sun-Sentinel story which reported that “Four South Florida cities that conducted independent audits of street lights run by Florida Power & Light scored $388,000 in credits - charges for hundreds of lights that don’t exist.”

But the story has a much longer lineage, as Mike Danvers, owner of a consulting firm which first discovered the discrepancies, was kind enough to explain. Here is his account, which will likely resonate with many exasperated taxpayers in cities across the U.S., whose leaders are crying poverty and seeking property tax hikes:

“In the summer of 2004 DC Maudlin and the City of Pompano Beach decided to hire someone with accounting and inventory knowledge to get an accurate streetlight counts within the city limit. I was selected for the job. As I combed the streets carefully I realized that there were irregularities when compared to the Florida Power and Light inventory.  I could not locate the poles at the addresses, and there were duplications of addresses.  Because neither DC Maudlin nor the City’s electricians could answer some of the questions I asked about the discrepancies and errors stretching across the City, meetings were arranged with an FPL representative. Answers were given which did not make sense.”

“This led me to wonder if the City would ever locate such problems on its own and ask FPL for an explanation. That prompted me to start a consultant business of my own in October 2004. I completed the project with the City of Pompano Beach in January of 2005. The City requested a credit from FPL; however, nothing happened for awhile.”

“After I talked to several cities about the discovery in Pompano Beach, I was given the break by the City of Tamarac for its streetlight bill audit and inventory. The job was done  on a consignment basis and I was not surprised by the results. The local television news station, Channel 7 News, got involved and the crew assigned to the case did two reports in early 2006. The City later received a $65,000 refund from FPL.”

“The City of Coral Springs asked for about one-tenth of the city’s streetlights to be audited, with the understanding that if errors were located, then my firm would be allowed to examine the rest of the city’s streetlights. Although a 7 percent error rate was discovered, FPL was able to convince the Coral Springs City Manager and the Director of Public Works not to go any further. The City of Miramar and the City of Coconut Creek also hired my firm, resulting in similar findings. However, in these cases we used GPS mapping on the streets in Miramar and Coconut Creek, with even more startling results. In Miramar, one association was paying for streetlights that have been charged to the city, while in another ase FPL’s maps indicated that there were streetlights in the middle of a canal. Three streets had lights that FPL had billed in triplicate.”

“After FPL was given the discrepancy lists from the cities, the representatives denied the results my firm uncovered and instead FPL attempted to assess additional charges to each city. Yet, after several meetings and many months, in which my company endured attacks on its professionalism, FPL decided to give credits to Tamarac, Miramar, and Coconut Creek in the amount of $200,000, $52,000 and $70,000 respectively.  The City of Coral Springs refused to fight for the taxpayer’s money. “

“I believe FPL should be fined for its stubbornness to stop overcharging these cities and interfering with other cities getting their audit done. In some cases charges for phantom services had been going on for decades. The Florida Public Service Commission was given the scope on FPL’s activities with the overcharges; however, they turned their heads too. This is a terrible disservice to the citizens of our state.”

NTU is not in the business of advertising for private firms. However, Mr. Danvers has made himself available for questions from Government Bytes! subscribers who may be wondering whether their own cities could use a little enlightenment over local government electric bills that are ultimately passed along to taxpayers. Read more about him and his firm here.