While Finance Director Robert Strom considers the city’s 2012 audit “favorable” by and large, the process did highlight discrepancies in Municipal Court receipts. Auditing firm Braver PC identified the inconsistencies and said Monday that receipts were off by an average of 3 percent, with significantly more shortages than overages.
While the numbers are not final, Strom said the last update he received estimated the shortfall at around $8,000.
Councilman Emilio Navarro questioned how such errors could be made, and was surprised to discover that the Municipal Court takes cash payments for fines, parking and traffic tickets issued by the city.
“That right there is a big red flag for me,” he said.
Council President Anthony Lupino questioned how these kinds of errors could go on unnoticed. He used the adage about the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, when he questioned how the same person or people could be making deposits even after these inconsistencies arose.
Although the discrepancies came as news to the council this week, Chief of Staff Carlos Lopez said the administration has been aware of the situation for some time.
“As soon as the administration became aware of a situation, we acted upon it. It’s been under investigation. The Police Department has been involved, but because it’s a personnel issue, we can’t speak publicly on it,” Lopez said.
Monday was Lupino’s final council meeting, as he chose not to seek re-election, and he urged the remaining and incoming members to stay on top of the issue.
“I would encourage that the next council bring this up as maybe a council member communication item at the next meeting,” he said.
City solicitor Evan Kirshenbaum says the issue is being handled. He said the person handling the receipts is “no longer with the city,” but would not go into further detail or indicate whether that individual had left voluntary or had been fired.
“Anything further, I can’t comment right now,” he said.
During the audit process, Braver PC – or any auditing firm for that matter – chooses random departments to examine particularly closely. Strom says that the administration was already alerted to concerns about a particular Municipal Court employee, so he suggested that the Court be among Braver PC’s field test subjects.
An initial sample of four months alerted Braver PC to a problem.
“He found that there were some discrepancies between what the deposit sheets said to what was deposited. When he reported that to his lead auditor, they both came to me and asked me should they pursue this further. There have been some issues through Municipal Courts throughout the state with shortages so when they told me that they had some discrepancies, we signed an engagement letter for them to do a more in-depth study,” Strom explained.
Once a final report is issued by Braver, and the Cranston Police complete their portion of the investigation, Lopez said the city would decide on a course of action and see what recourse they have to recoup lost funds.
In other council action, an ordinance was passed that amends the city’s Zoning Map in the area of Johnson & Wales University. The change, according to Johnson & Wales attorney and senior vice president Wayne Kezirian, allows the university to have more control over improvements. While the request made was not in response to something in particular that is planned, he said it would help with general maintenance and exterior improvements down the line.
Johnson & Wales is now considered institutional zoning. Previously, zoning was cumbersome for the university.
“Any time we would like to make a change to the exterior of the buildings, we have to go to the Zoning Board of Review,” Kezirian explained.
Chickens were back on the agenda as well, as the City Council considered Mayor Allan Fung’s veto of an ordinance providing regulations for backyard chicken keeping.
Ward 1 Councilman Steve Stycos has advocated on behalf of chicken keepers, and continued to do so at Monday night’s meeting. He said that the city’s rat issue is being used as a scapegoat. He believes that the city must tackle that independently.
Outgoing Ward 2 Councilman Emilio Navarro agreed.
“Right now I think everything is going to be blamed on the rat issue in this city, but I just don’t see the connection,” he said. “Right now, people are raising chickens in the city and utilizing their eggs and no one even knows. They want it to be lawful and have an ordinance in place.”
Navarro’s seat will be filled in January by Republican Don Botts, who urged the council to uphold the mayor’s veto.
“I think the timing of this ordinance isn’t right. I believe we should be doing everything possible to prevent exacerbating the problem with the rats,” he said.
Opponents to the ordinance cited not only compounding the rat issue but also costs to the city for inspections, the safety of chickens and the potential negative impact on housing values, which was supported by realtor Ed Lannon.
“Anything that would be detrimental to the value of homes I would hate to see occur and interfere with Cranston’s upward trend,” he said.
Former Councilman Aram Garabedian, wearing a homemade badge protesting the chicken ordinance, has likewise been vocal in his opposition to backyard chicken keeping.
“I really believe, in talking to citizens, that they are generally and strongly opposed. There’s enough data and information and concern out on the street that the people of this city generally think this would be a negative thing to do,” he said.
Mayor Fung’s veto was upheld, as the council would have needed a super majority of six votes to overturn the action. Only council members Stycos, Lupino and Navarro voted to override the veto, with Ward 4 council member Maria Bucci absent.
Ward 6’s Michael Favicchio was pleased with the outcome, and said the majority of constituents he spoke with have been opposed to the ordinance.
“I don’t think people want to see chickens next door,” he said. “I think this is the wrong time.”