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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Audit finds trouble at city cemeteries

A report by the city auditor’s staff found that the Parks and Recreation Department’s Cemetery Operations Group has demonstrated a “general lack of oversight” in managing certain aspects of the city’s municipal cemeteries.

Among other issues, the October audit revealed five instances between April 2013 and June 2014 in which Cemetery Operations Group staff sold the same plot of land to two different people. In one case, the report states, Cemetery Manager Gilbert Hernandez signed two deeds on the same day, selling the same plot of land to two different people.

The audit also identified that staff failed to record multiple burial space deeds with the County Clerk’s Office, did not keep complete financial records, did not handle cash properly and did not ensure that the city received adequate services from the vendors with which it contracted.

Council Audit and Finance Committee members expressed some shock about the audit results. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole called the findings “very serious” and “troubling.”

Hernandez was quick to point out that, despite the duplicate sales, staff “didn’t actually inter someone on top of someone else,” or bury someone in an occupied plot. He added that the incident in which staff double-sold the same plot in one day “was done voluntarily by the family that we sold the space to twice.”

PARD Director Sarah Hensley noted that “it’s not a good situation” and “there’s no excuse for it.”

Hensley said that PARD staff has faced a number of challenges since taking over the sales, operations and maintenance of the five cemeteries in April 2013 from Interment Services, Inc., a contractor that the department worked with for the previous 23 years.

Specifically, Hensley said, PARD hired temporary employees to manage the cemetery operations until it could hire the 22 full-time employees it was allocated in the FY2014 budget. She made it a point to note that she wasn’t blaming the temporary employees for the issues.

Hernandez said the Cemetery Operations Group inherited much of its data from the previous contractor. “We rely upon the accuracy of employees or vendors before us correctly identifying when a space is sold,” he said.

Hernandez noted that in order to address the issues, his staff has been following a new protocol over the past three or four months for auditing the “lot books” in which sales are manually recorded.

“We actually do a review of the book as well as the county clerk’s website to verify that the space indeed is accurately shown as unsold in our lot books,” Hernandez said. “We also have a monthly reconciliation where we verify by a third party — myself or another staff member — where we actually go in, verify the sales documents, compare that to the lot book and compare it to the county website.”

PARD Assistant Director Corra Cora Wright said that her department is taking additional oversight steps. These include requiring that the Cemetery Operations Group accountant report to the PARD finance manager rather than the cemetery manager, perform monthly sales audits and help verify deeds.

Wright said that staff is currently testing newly acquired software called Cemetery Information Management System, which they plan to introduce in February. They will then transfer all of the current records over to the new system.

Additionally, Wright said that staff will re-evaluate and rearticulate the performance expectations of the cemetery manager and all operational staff, including sales and maintenance staff.

In addition to these broader issues, the audit also details one instance in which Hernandez postdated and signed a $55,000 check from Sept. 22 as received on Oct. 1, which would have caused it to appear in the records for Fiscal Year 2015, rather than 2014.

The report notes that Hernandez stated that the check was received on Sept. 29, and that “he had met his sales targets for (Fiscal Year) 2014 and wanted a large deposit to begin (Fiscal Year) 2015,” but that he “later provided statements in writing that contradicted his initial assertions.”

“Asserting contradictory explanations for the situation, instructing subordinates to deposit a check at a later date, and postdating payment records,” the report states, “call into question the ethical tone the cemetery manager is fostering in the Cemetery Operations Group.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said that this is “a very strong statement, and the actions themselves are very concerning.” She sought clarification about how sales targets were identified as a performance measure for the cemetery manager and what the plan is going forward.

Wright reiterated that the cemetery manager is responsible for ensuring that operations stay within budget and generate sufficient revenue, but that revenue is only one of many performance measures for the manager. She added that PARD staff is going to consider reclassifying one or two current staff vacancies as sales managers.

Hensley said there are differing viewpoints about what led up to the delay of the check, but that it was a violation of city policy nonetheless. “I can assure you that we’re very clear on the city policy and how the procedure should be followed, and we’ll be following that up and making sure that doesn’t happen again.”

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City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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