Jackson County

Moss Point Utilities supervisor resigned after questioning over deficit

Moss Point Utility office at City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.
Moss Point Utility office at City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

A former supervisor in the Moss Point Utilities Department resigned the same day she was asked about potential wrongdoing in her department.

Kenya Bowens resigned Sept. 12 after Mayor Billy Broomfield confronted her about the mounting deficit in the department, currently projected at $3.4 million, as well as other questionable practices.

Among his chief concerns, Broomfield said, was learning certain employees had been allowing customers to make small cash payments on their mounting water bills in exchange for keeping their service on. The payments never made it into city coffers because they were not turned over to the Finance Department to deposit into the general fund, officials say.

Bowens was identified following a Sun Herald records request. A Utilities Department clerk, Lakeisha Benton, resigned the following day.

“It was determined we were looking into this and were going to bring in some outside auditors,” Broomfield said Wednesday. “I guess they concluded that they wanted to resign then.”

Neither woman could be reached for comment.

“When they were confronted and asked about the allegations that were brought before them, they just went on and said they wanted to resign,” City Clerk Stephanie Coleman said.

Time at City Hall

Bowens started working for the city in March 2012 as a laborer in the Public Works Department. She was transferred to the Utilities Department in April 2012. Her salary at the time of her exit was $35,235, according to information obtained through the Sun Herald’s records request.

Benton was hired April 12, 2012, as a clerk, with her annual salary at $35,235 at the time of her resignation.

Both are among those the mayor said he confronted after discovering activities in the department that raised questions. The has city called in the District Attorney’s Office and the State Auditor’s Office to investigate.

Looking at the finances

As city clerk, Coleman oversees operations in the Utilities and Finance departments. When she took over in January, she noticed the revenues in the Utilities Department didn’t add up.

Soon, she and Broomfield suspected wrongdoing and started looking into the matter.

Through the internal probe, Broomfield said, it was determined the Utilities Department estimated $3.4 million deficit was in part due to certain “former” employees voiding out the receipts for the small payments on account and pocketing the cash.

In other cases, customer weren’t paying at all. The city has determined at least 13 percent of its customers weren’t paying their bills and 7 percent more were stealing the services through illegal direct hookups.

Broomfield inherited the majority of the debt, about $2.1 million, when he took over as mayor in July 2013.

Broomfield said the city will do everything it can to “make sure people are brought to justice.”

Criminal wrongdoing?

Coleman said certain former employees had been manipulating Utility Department records to hide the missing money.

In some cases, Broomfield said, former employees would allow residents with delinquent accounts at one address to open an account at a new address without settling the outstanding debt.

Broomfield became suspicious when he noticed some customers repeatedly made it onto a list of customers with outstanding utilities debt. Some had bills as high as $10,000 but were still receiving city services.

Not long after he took office, Broomfield said, he questioned why the city even had a “cutoff” list of customers who were in arrears.

He said he asked former City Clerk Adlean Liddell why such a list was needed if so few ever faced any consequences for not paying up.

“I brought it to her attention that these cutoff lists were totally unacceptable,” he said. “You either pay your bill or the service is cut off.”

He said he requested a monthly copy of the cutoff list, which continued to grow and he continued to ask questions, but he never got an explanation for why from Liddell.

Liddell retired Oct. 30, 2015, after a little more than 14 years as city clerk. She also had worked 20 years in another clerical position in the city. Her salary at retirement was $64,480.

Liddell, reached Wednesday, declined to comment.

The criminal investigation involving the city’s Utilities Department is one of two going on in the city.

The State Auditor’s Office is also looking into questionable spending in the Moss Point Police Department Benefit Fund. That account paid for trips to restaurants, nail spas and a liquor store, records have revealed.

Margaret Baker: 228-896-0538, @Margar45