Professionals used one hour at a time

By Jim Butler

jimenews@bellsouth.net

Mayor Bob Morris’ decision to suspend a monthly retaining payment to Aucoin & Associates focuses attention on professional services required by the city.

Morris said the Legislative Auditor’s office had raised a question about paying Aucoin a stipend for engineering services, while at the same time the firm was working on city projects for the standard engineering fees.

The city for several years has paid Aucoin & Associates $553.13 monthly. For that sum, Karl Aucoin or another representative of the firm was on hand at monthly council meetings and meetings at which the preliminary meeting agenda is drawn up.

Aucoin or his stand-in would answer any questions arising from an engineering standpoint as well as receive any assignments given the firm by the city. Additionally, he or his firm was on call for relatively routine matters.

When Morris advised he was no longer paying the fee, Aucoin said that decision was the city’s. “Frankly, it was costing us money,” he said at the time.

A Eunice News study of such fees could lead one to agree with Aucoin.

Professionals -- lawyers, accountants, computer technicians -- bill the city on an hourly basis, and their hours don’t come cheap.

In the first eight months of the current fiscal year, city payments to such professionals totaled more than $78,000, money paid for some recurring basic government expenses and for special-request work.

Leading the way is the city’s auditors, Darnall, Sikes, Gardes & Frederick, paid $44,480 from July 1, 2007 until Feb. 29, 2008. Legal fees were about $10,400, technology support about $15,000; and engineering about $6,200.

Morris and former City Clerk Terry Lacombe relied heavily on Steve Moosa, in the firm’s office here, for assistance, research and advice on financial matters throughout 2007.

Morris, new to public office, was equally new to public accounting. Lacombe, new to Eunice, had public affairs experience in his background, but leaned on Moosa almost daily in the administration’s early months.

Examples of the auditor’s input and billing:

Budget analysis prepared for presentation to mayor and council members, $770;

Assistance with compiling revised 2007-08 original budget for August council meeting and attending meetings with City Clerk and council members, $2,800.

Assistance with compiling and updating information for pay raise for city employees, including the Police and Fire Departments, $340.

Fees relating to conclusion of field work and drafting of the financial report for fiscal year ended June 30, $16,000.

Feasibility analysis of reducing residential toilet tax, $175;

Fees related to audit of financial report, $2,500.

The accounting firm has not been at the mayor’s elbow as much since Lacombe resigned in January to take an Acadia Parish position.

Morris says that is some coincidence-some intentional.

He is more familiar now with fiscal matters than he was in the previous 12 months, and, he says, Lacombe tended to rely on the auditor for any money question. New clerk Earlene LeJeune has more institutional background by virtue of her being with the city for 17 years before getting her new post.

Previous administrations, officials said, relied on the city clerk for accounting work that has been farmed out by Morris.

“The city got what it paid for, or more to the point didn’t pay for,” the mayor said.

Asked if Darnall, Sikes, when it comes time to audit the books in June, faces the same conflict issue that the Legislative Auditor raised with Aucoin, Morris said that’s for the Legislative Auditor to answer.

He said he has become more aware of the fact that when professionals are called for assistance, the clock starts running.

Aucoin & Associates was paid $3,871.91, seven payments of the $553.13 retainer. Those months would have included seven council meetings average about two hours each, and seven agenda meetings, perhaps totaling 1.5 hours.

Acadian Engineers was paid $2,415 for a study of Hwy. 190 East drainage. That bill broke down to 15.5 hours for a registered engineer at $90 hourly, 9.5 hours for a project manager at $80 hourly, 4.5 hours for a 1-man survey crew at $55 hourly and mileage, 19 miles, at 70 cents a mile.

Fees set by professional firms include percentages felt necessary by the firm to meet overhead, such as rent, support salaries, staff salaries, etc, and allow for profit.

Dissatisfied with results and reliability, the administration switched technology providers last year, turning back to The Denison Company of New Iberia to fix its problems and deciding to pursue a refund from the previous vendor.

Denison’s work continues. It has installed software and hardware, returned to re-work some software, straightened out kinks in programs and the like, and trained employees in using both.

Roland Denison and Christine Lissard bill the city at $69 hourly.

The city’s legal expenses are paid to two attorneys -- Vernon McManus, who handles property matters, and City Attorney Jacque Pucheu, technically a city employee. Both are appointed by the City Council on nomination by the mayor. McManus is paid on a hourly basis, at rate of $135 hourly; Pucheu is retained for $1,000 monthly, and bills the city by the hour at a $75 hourly rate, according to the most-recent invoices paid.

When Pucheu’s number of hours exceeds the monthly retainer, the city pays more. The city attorney is enrolled in the employee insurance and retirement systems.

Since July 2007, McManus has been paid $1,535.35. And that was paid in February. Finance officials said McManus, and Pucheu as well, often are some months behind in billings to the city. The payment to McManus was for 11.3 hours work on one property case from April 2007 through September.

Similarly, Pucheu billed the city on July 10 for $4,630 worth of work in January-April 2007 and was paid on July 24.

His next invoice to the city, for May-Aug. 2007 was prepared on Dec. 20 and paid on Jan. 31 of this year. It totaled $4,209.

Reviewing the billing is like reading a synopsis of city government over the the same period.

Pucheu’s billing narrative stipulates how much time was spent on what subject.

Quite a bit of behind the scenes work was devoted to litigation, actual, planned or threatened, involving the city.

Pucheu has in the past six months argued the city’s point in cases involving firemen, a dismissed wastewater superintendent, a police officer, and the computer services company the city dumped last summer.

Acadia Parish Today

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