AVON PARK - City Manager Julian Deleon is bringing in a management firm to evaluate the City of Avon Park's utility billing operations while eight former and current city workers accuse him of "intimidation" in the workplace.
In an Aug. 5 letter to all employees, Deleon said: "Based on an alleged threat of an employee strike for City Hall, and the resignation of the utility billing supervisor, I will be bringing in the firm of Severn Trent Services for a two-week period to evaluate and perform a risk assessment on utility billing operations."
Utility Billing Supervisor Gladys Ortiz resigned July 29.
The two-week evaluation could result in a permanent contract for the firm, he said. The city does not have a current employee who can immediately assume the utility billing supervisory duties.
In an Aug. 1 letter to the city council members, eight former and current city workers call for Deleon to be placed on administrative leave immediately until an investigation is completed.
City Clerk Cheryl Tietjen forwarded a copy of the letter to Highlands Today, which included the following typed names at the bottom: Gladys Ortiz, Savitri Latchmansingh, Anita Worden, Cheryl Tietjen, LilyAnn Bermudez, Yarima Cuencas, Marnita English and Janet Shields.
The employees claim their productivity has been greatly diminished due to the work environment and the staff shortage.
The letter notes the resignation of Ortiz, who was the utility billing supervisor, and the July 8 resignation of the city's human resources specialist, Jessica Pantoja, who also performed payroll duties.
"It is apparent to us, through his actions, that the city manager doesn't trust much of his staff," the employees stated in the letter. "It has been a hostile workplace for many, many months of which we have proof."
The employees stated that on July 1 much of the City Hall staff was told of "yet more moves of offices" and told to "start packing! All due to the city manager's insecurities."
In an email Wednesday, Deleon explained some of the employee issues he has addressed recently.
He provided photos of boxes of city records stored under a staircase and stored in a number of rooms in City Hall.
Deleon noted, "In particular take note of the pictures of city records being stored in the public hallways of the building, easily available for anyone to acquire and remove from our building without any security."
A letter from the city's fire inspector stated that the manner in which the records were being stored presented a fire hazard, Deleon said.
About two months ago he reassigned and moved offices around due to the "unsecured manner" in which the city records were being stored.
The city clerk (Tietjen), who previously held the job of "records clerk" and has been with the city for more than eight years, has direct responsibility for maintaining, storing and purging city records as the designated "records custodian," he said. The city clerk's office was moved to be near the records room to start focusing on a decade of "deferred work duties."
Tietjen told Highlands Today that everything Deleon said concerning the records is true.
The area under the stairwell has been cleaned up and a significant amount of the records inside the records room has been disposed of over the past month, she said.
"I have made significant progress," Tietjen said. She had not been informed the inspection that was done. "The fire marshal should be alerted now that the area has been significantly improved," she said.
"I did tell the city manager that I appreciate this opportunity to finally get the records room addressed, which has been in this condition since I've been here and I was unable to address it as everyone has been so overwhelmed," she said.
She had been "extremely busy" being the only person in the city manager lobby area for quite a while, dealing with all the walk-ins, phone calls, city clerk duties and paperwork for the numerous annexations, Tietjen noted.
Pantoja, the city's payroll specialist position, resigned in July, and shortly after, administration was told by the budget and finance supervisor that payroll had not been reconciled since October 2012, Deleon said.
This amounted to almost 10 months of work backlog, which affected the city's internal controls over finances, he said.
Deleon said that accounts receivable for utilities, sanitation and the airport had not been reconciled since October 2012 and the reconciliation of bank statements were also behind. The city's audit was completed 30 days late in violation of state statute.
"All of these issues are problematic and alarming," he said. "These types of problems have been repeated audit findings for more than five years and has exposed the city to massive liability.
"We spend about $250,000 funding jobs to perform accounting duties which are simply not getting done to my satisfaction."
Deleon said he intends to expand the services of the city's current CPA to include all accounting functions for the city.
In an Aug. 2 letter, Deleon informed Budget and Accounting Supervisor LilyAnn Bermudez that she was being laid off effective Aug. 2.
"The workflow is not getting done in accordance to my expectations," Deleon stated in the letter. "Despite the seriousness of these issues, I had not been notified of problems by you until most recently. There was a critical failure to communicate the backlog in work to my office."
Deleon said he will utilize the city's existing contract with the CPA firm Wicks Brown and Williams to "bring a team of experts to manage and provide the needed accountability and oversight of the city's accounting duties."
Deleon told Highlands Today, "I am going to take whatever steps are necessary to maintain operational readiness for all city divisions and departments."
LaBelle attorney Richard Sullivan, who is representing the eight former and current employees, will be on the agenda for Monday's city council meeting, Deleon noted. Also, City Attorney Gerald Buhr and City Labor Attorney Brian Koji will address the council on the employees' issues.