A county auditor said Wednesday she's been unable to determine precisely what Opa-locka has done with sales tax transit funds because the city hasn't been cooperating and the report of the city's external auditor doesn't seem to jibe with reality.
At issue is $798,692 that the city should have in a reserve fund as of Sept. 30, 2014 -- dollars that came from the half-penny sales tax that is supposed to go toward transportation services.
Speaking to the audit committee of the Citizen's Independent Transportation Trust, Cathy Jackson said she "started field work a year ago" on examining how Opa-locka spent its transit funds, but has been unable to finalize a report because "information was not forthcoming" from the city.
Jackson, the county's director of audit and management services, said that from what the city's external auditor reported in its 2014 annual audit, "it appears the money is there -- and the money is not."
She said she's been trying to rectify the audit and the reality since October. She said the city has acknowledged that it spent the transit funds on non-transit projects.
Charles D. Scurr, CITT's executive director, told the committee that the trust is withholding monthly payments to Opa-locka, with the exception of the 20 percent of the payments that are intended for the city trolley service.
Scurr said he didn't want to penalize the trolley riders for the city's financial mismanagement. He added CITT will make sure the trolley vendors are paid for the first month before the trust sends the city money for a second month's trolley service.
A spokesman for the Opa-locka city manager, who said it was only his third day on the job, told the committee, "We are committed to resolving the situation." He refused to speak to a reporter after the meeting.
Scurr said the city would have to repay the trust for the misspent money, or tax funds would be withheld until they made up for the wayward spending and a plan was in place to determine the money would be property spent.
"I'm deeply troubled," said Paul Schwiep, the trust's chair. "There ought to be some penalty. By law they are not allowed to do that. All the voters of Miami-Dade County are being victimized."
Without a penalty, Schwiep said a city could simply mis-use funds again when it felt like it.
No other CITT committee member supported his suggestion of a penalty.
Jackson, the audit director, said, "Opa-locka is not the only city" in the way it handles CITT funds, but its behavior "is just more pronounced, a lot more egregious."
She didn't elaborate. Scurr said that in the past two other cities -- Sweetwater and Miami Lakes -- have been caught spending transit funds on other projects and have gone through similar periods in which tax funds were withheld under the matter was settled.