During a recent meeting with city commissioners, Quincy’s finance director Maria Carty and James McKenzie gave an update on the city’s fiber optic smart grid project, but the numbers don’t add up.
A smart grid is an electrical grid that can monitor power flows from points of generation to points of consumption.
With the smart grid, Quincy utility customers will have more control over their utility bills, and the city can eliminate the use of meter readers.
As beneficial as the smart grid may be, Quincy commissioners are still trying to find out where $60,000 of the money budgeted for the project is coming from.
For months, Quincy commissioners have been asking Carty, McKenzie and City Manager Jack McLean exactly how the smart grid is being funded – where is the money coming from?
During the Tuesday, May 11 commission meeting, Carty said the funding for the project was broken up into two fiscal years.
According to Carty’s presentation to the commissioners, it was the commission itself that had budgeted $800,000 for the project in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
“Of that $800,000 last year, only $363,000 was used,” Carty said.
Carty said the $363,000 was taken from a $3 million loan that the city took out with Capital City Bank, in relation to Hurricane Michael.
According to McLean, the original $800,000 came from three sources – the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Capital City Bank loan and Hurricane Michael surcharge that’s added to customer’s utility bills.
McLean said the city staff used money from the loan first, because it was the first funding source that the city had received of the three sources.
McLean added that the money from FEMA will be used to pay back that portion of the loan.
Carty said it was originally projected that the city would spend $622,000was spent on the fiber network in the 2019-2020 budget which left an extra $259,000 in the account.
As for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Carty said the commissioners budgeted $500,000 for the project, since only $363,000 was used the previous year.
Carty said the city has spent $39,840 of that budgeted money as of March 31 of this year.
The commissioners then questioned where the other $500,000 was coming from.
Carty said $259,000 will come from money rolled over from the previous budget from the Capital City Bank loan, and the other $240,000 will come from retained earnings.
“I looked at this for several days, and I tried to understand it, and I’m generally pretty good with numbers,” Commissioner Frieda Bass-Prieto told Carty.
Bass-Prieto pointed out that when the commission received the Hurricane Michael loan financial statement in September 2019, it said the city had already spent $2,437,942 of the funds.
That does not leave us with $622,000,” Bass-Prieto said. “It leaves us with $562,000.”
The difference in the two balances is $60,000.
“There’s no line item that would be that,” said Bass Prieto.
Carty said that all she could do is look back on the financial statements for that period, and what she could see in the financial documents from that time was that the city had the money for the project.
Bass-Prieto told Carty her own research was based on the reports that had been provided to Bass-Prieto as a commissioner; Bass-Prieto added that she believed the amount of money documented as being carried over was incorrect.
“What I’m seeing we have spent, and what we have on the final budget tally, they don’t match,” said Bass-Prieto.
Bass-Prieto also stated that it seemed as if the commission was not getting the ability to decide what the city’s retained earnings were being used towards.
According to Bass-Prieto, the fact that the retained earning distribution was being handled at a “managerial level” was part of the problem, and led to more confusion between the commission and the city staff.
McLean said the $60,000 needed to be accounted for.
Carty said she would look into it.
“The management failure here is we’ve had a project for almost two years, and we’ve only been brought up to speed in the last 45 days,” Mayor Ronte Harris said.
Harris asked if there will be a user-friendly app where customers can track their utility usage in real time, and if the customers will have the option to prepay for utilities, which is a feature he says Talquin Electric already offers.
According to Harris, the pre-pay option gives customers more control over their spending, and allows customers to see where they need to cut back on their electric.
McKenzie said there are capabilities of providing those additional services.
Harris also asked if the city will still be able to perform meter readings and bill accordingly.
“So there will be no more meter readers once we reach the last mile?” Harris asked, for clarification.
Carty said realistically, the city will still need to maintain one meter reader.
“At the end of this, I want to make sure we have a user-friendly application that our customers can utilize,” Harris added.
McKenze said the initial project is still on schedule to be completed by June 30, however, Carty said it may not be fully completed until September with the additional services requested by the commission, such as a user-friendly app and the option to pre-pay.
Erin Hill – Gadsden County News Service