Nearly three years after the City of Gulf Breeze started levying water utility surcharges on its customers who lives outside the municipality’s border, the Florida Auditor General’s Office is looking into numerous complaints about those fees.
Requested by State Sen. Doug Broxson, the state’s audit will apparently be a top-to-bottom investigation of the city’s financial condition. The probe will focus partly on whether deficits with the city’s business interests—especially money-losing Tiger Point Golf Club—led it to unfairly charge residents of that area for water service.
Surcharges of 3 percent to non-city residents by the municipality’s South Santa Rosa Utility System in 2015 and 2016 prompted protests at Gulf Breeze City Hall. Broxson said he had received about 400 written requests from constituents to look into the city’s “operations and finances.”
When the surcharges were imposed, some SSRU customers claimed they amount to “taxation without representation.” A few speculated that the city’s financial condition—particularly a debt load of more than $24 million—which exceeds that of the entire Santa Rosa County government — forced it to make unfair revenue demands.
Tom Naile, now a city council member, had questioned the surcharges when the panel imposed them before he was elected in the fall of 2016. He told this newspaper Friday that the audit “could be a major expense with all the documents that will have to be pulled.”
Naile indicated the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee’s decision on Thursday to request action from the Auditor General came as a surprise to Gulf Breeze officials and the City Council wasn’t notified ahead of time.
In fact, the city sent former City Manager Buz Eddy to the committee’s hearing in Tallahassee on Thursday to try to ward off a full audit. Eddy is now a paid advisor to the city.
Eddy told the Navarre Press he was puzzled about why it took the legislature more than two years after the first water utility surcharge to examine the matter: “I don’t know why now.”
The Auditor General has no enforcement authority, according to the legislative committee’s website. It states that “if fraud is suspected, the Auditor General may be required by professional standards to report it to those charged with the city’s governance and also to appropriate law enforcement authorities.”
The audit appears unrelated to a pending Sunshine Law complaint against Eddy and Gulf Breeze Mayor Matt Dannheisser, among others. Those allegations involve their volunteer positions on the Fairpoint Regional Utility Board and an unannounced meeting they attended on Oct. 31 to which other panel members weren’t invited. That complaint is being reviewed by the State Attorney’s Office.