By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The city’s parking lots and garages are monitored by attendants whose cash-only collections are not verified, overseen by administrators who let the cash sit in drawers for weeks and secured only by obsolete surveillance cameras installed decades ago, according to a review released yesterday.
Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, began the review after a parking attendant was accused and another was implicated in what investigators say is the theft of thousands of dollars in receipts from the Museum Square garage, the city’s largest parking facility.
After an investigation that lasted less than two weeks, Nunes said he found a parking system riddled with “fiscal and operational vulnerabilities” that made it ripe for a shakedown.
“The entire parking operation lacks any formalized standard operating procedures, instructions or best practices,” Nunes said. “There are no official job titles for managers and no detailed list of responsibilities for any of the 21 employees.”
Nunes asked for 14 reforms, including converting the seven lots and two garages from cash-only collections to the so-called pay and display system recently installed on downtown streets, where drivers buy parking tickets at kiosks and display them in their windshields. Nunes also wants armored cars to replace the parking attendants who pick up collections from the seven parking lots and two garages at the end of every day.
Nunes, a deputy commissioner in the state Department of Revenue, gave Mayor William Lantigua 30 days to provide a schedule for putting the reforms in place.
Lantigua did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Along with the six-page report detailing the lax oversight at the parking division, which is part of the Department of Public Works, Nunes also released a spreadsheet with 2,469 lines detailing daily collections at eight of the city garages and lots since 2007. At the Museum Square garage, the data shows collections peaked at $31,059 in February 2011 and have hovered mostly between about $21,000 and $27,000 since then.
Collections dropped to $18,963 in August, then plunged to $7,370 in May. The FBI and state police began monitoring collections at the garage in March.
Nunes’ report does not comment on the drop in collections at the garage, but calls for “a comprehensive, independent, outside forensic audit.”
Yesterday’s report was Nunes’ third in three years detailing broken systems at City Hall. In December 2011, after Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla arranged the swap of 13 city vehicles for four owned by a politically connected car dealer, Nunes ordered the police department to tighten its procurement policies. In October, after the discovery that building inspector Lawrence Hester had failed to inform tax assessors of $33 million in new development he approved, Nunes ordered reforms to the way the Building Department does business.
The latest report suggests Lantigua inherited several of the alleged deficiencies in the parking system, although he appears to have done little to correct them since taking office in 2010, even as he more than doubled the number of parking employees, to 21.
For example, Nunes said the city has never enforced a 26-year-old contract with the Jackson Street Housing Associates, which provided it with 276 free parking spaces at the Museum Square garage for the first five years of the contact to compensate it for construction costs at the garage, which the company built. Today, 21 years after the city could have begun billing the company for the parking it provides its tenants, the company has never received a bill, Nunes said.
At least six other companies who have parking contracts with the city were a total of $60,937 behind in their payments by yesterday morning, although one — described only as the Blakeley Building at 467-470 Essex St. — paid its overdue $4,898 bill later in the day.
The biggest of the alleged deadbeats is Matthew Abrams, who owns the Gleason Building at 349-51 Essex St. He owes $40,940, Nunes said.
Nunes said he could not review payments by about a dozen other companies with rights to spaces in city garages and lots because their agreements “do not appear to be formalized with supporting documentation.”
Other parking revenues that could have been collected by the state’s poorest city also have been left on the table, Nunes said.
Lots are often left unattended “for extended periods of time,” Nunes said. Drivers who do not retrieve their vehicles after attendants leave at 5:30 p.m. are left to an honor system and asked to deposit their payments in a slot in the attendants’ booths. Collections for monthly passes, which cost up to $80, can sit in drawers for weeks.
“Cash and checks are accepted, but deposits are not occurring on a daily or even weekly basis,” Nunes said. “Since the beginning of calendar year 2013, nine entries have been made in the MUNIS accounting system.” MUNIS is a municipal accounting system.
Other practices Nunes found appear to invite the kind of theft that state police alleged earlier this month against parking attendants Justo Garcia and Felix Matos. Garcia has been charged with larceny and other crimes at the Museum Square garage; Matos was accused in a police affidavit of receiving stolen money from Garcia, but has not been charged.
“The employee is responsible for his or her own final count” of cash at the end of the day,” Nunes said about the parking attendants. “There are no secondary efforts to reconcile or confirm the number of total customers per shift and the total amount of cash on hand.”
Although collections are tallied in daily spreadsheets by a DPW employee, the spreadsheets are not audited.
Nunes also noted that Lantigua boosted employment in the parking division from eight to 21 people since 2010. Over the same period, Lantigua laid off dozens of cops and firefighters. Garcia, who is Lantigua’s campaign photographer, is among the 13 Lantigua hires in the parking division. He was taking pictures for Lantigua at Sunday’s Hispanic Week parade.
Two city councilors blamed Lantigua for the deficiencies identified in Nunes’ report.
“When the mayor comes before the council and says he’s looked under every rock to make sure all money is accounted for and he can’t find more money to pay for more police officers and firefighters, and we learn in this report that there are up to $60,000 in payments the parking division did not get, that tells me that the mayor has not been truthful or that he’s not managing the city as he should,” said Councilor Marc Laplante.
“It’s a good thing that Willie has an overseer to lay out everything he needs to do to fix the problem,” said Councilor Daniel Rivera, who chairs the council’s budget committee and is challenging Lantigua in September’s preliminary election for mayor. “The question now is, will he do as he is told.”
Parking Reforms Fiscal overseer Robert Nunes directed Mayor William Lantigua to implement 14 reforms at the city's parking division and gave him 30 days to submit a schedule. They include: Install a "pay and display" system for collecting fees in the lots and garages. Transport collections by armored vehicle until the new system can be installed. End cash collectionsfor monthly passes. Raise parking rates. Ensure that parking contractscomply with state law. Consider renegotiating existing contracts. Improve security. Formalize job descriptions. Improve accounting standards.