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County engineering audit sparks changes in department

January 18, 2019 GMT

An audit of the Liberty County engineering department discovered some alarming practices, including some missing money that has since been corrected and addressed, officials said.

The audit is designed to provide reasonable but not absolute assurance that the department is adhering to laws, regulations, and contracts. It will also ascertain whether controls in place are adequate to safeguard assets, review that transactions and department funds are properly supported, recorded, and deposited in their entirety in a timely manner and in accordance with all governing laws and regulations.

It was that last mantra that was violated and forced the early retirement of one employee.

A newly created reinspection fee was being charged and collected during June and July 2018, but the fees had not been approved by commissioner’s court.

Angela Maselli, first assistant county auditor, also discovered cash was being collected for the reinspection fees and not deposited with the Treasurer’s office.

David Douglas, who was originally appointed county grant administrator and later had engineering interim administrator and flood plain manager added to his duties in 2017, was disappointed that it happened under his watch.

“I think they felt like they needed the money more than the county,” he said.

It wasn’t a large sum of money, only reaching approximately $200 or four transactions.

“It was still a misappropriation of funds, of county money,” Douglas said, “and the lady no longer works here. She chose to retire under the circumstances.”

The audit also found that no receipts were issued to customers for reinspection fees paid with cash.

In his response to the audit, Douglas said the culvert reinspection fee structure has since been approved by the court.

“Since these funds were collected prior to Court action, they were returned to the customer,” he said.

Douglas also said the fees are no longer collected in the field.

“Payments are accepted only by personal appearance of the customer at the Engineering and Permit Department. Numbered receipts are issued, thereby allowing for appropriate tracking,” the interim administrator said.

Some of the concern was the fast-rising amount of money being transacted in the engineering department.

Last year the county engineering department did just a little less than $1 million in business, more than tripling the amount in the last four years. In 2014, the department’s revenue was $298,962. In 2018, the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2018 was a whopping $963,885.

“There are a number of permits that we issue,” Douglas said.

Among them are driveway or culvert permits which help the county account for the size of culverts being used and facilitate good drainage.

There’s also a subdivision permit for preliminary platting and platting. Those fees are accelerating as developers purchase land and begin work on new subdivisions.

“When you’re adding 3,000 to 4,000 lots, that can be a lot of money,” he said.

The biggest bulk of the work comes with septic systems installed in the county.

“There’s not a septic system installed in Liberty County that we’re not supposed to permit and inspect,” Douglas said.

As part of the inspection department, they also respond to complaints of neighbor’s sewer in the yard, drainage issues, and other engineering type complaints.

Douglas readily admits he’s not a P.E. (professional engineer) but relies on his many years of city management business to be a sort of “shade tree engineer,” he said.

The county has been outsourcing engineering services to LJA Engineers in Beaumont for a few years now.

If growth continues at the current trajectory, the $1 million collected this year could as much as triple in the next five years.

With that in mind, procedures have changed. Douglas said hindsight is myopic.

“As of Jan. 15, we will only accept funds in the form of credit cards, debit cards, cashier’s checks, or money orders,” he said. No personal or corporate checks or cash.

Two weeks before Christmas, they installed the system to accept credit card transactions.

“I don’t see how you could short circuit the system we have now,” Douglas said.

Douglas used to office out of the Law Library across the street from the County Courthouse but has moved over to the former two-story Liberty County Hospital District building on the corner of Webster and Fannin in Liberty. The rest of the engineering department employees were set up in the annex building and have moved into the newer, more spacious facility.

“Now they have private offices now for each employee so that they can meet privately with their clients,” Douglas said.

Employees called Designated Representatives licensed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are qualified to inspect wastewater treatment systems or septic tanks.

“We’ve never hired a certified person,” Douglas explained. “We send them all to school to get their certification. We’ve never had one who was hired with the certification,” he said.

The county pays for the employee to take the classes and should they fail both of those times, they are still able to return to take the test on their own dime. If they fail a third time, Douglas said he asks for their resignation.

Douglas will soon have some relief.

The county is in the process of hiring an engineer. A job description is being written and could be presented to commissioner’s court in the next month or so.