Claremont Insider: Desert Trouble's A-Brewin'

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Desert Trouble's A-Brewin'

It's not often that a utility company can make a million dollar error in its billing, nor is that common for a city government to miss out on tax dollars owed to it.

Yet, out in the desert, in Indio, that's been going on for years it seems. The Desert Sun reports that an error in billing by the city's electrical utility, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), is much, much more serious than originally reported.

The IID had originally been suspected of having failed to bill about 4,000 homes and businesses for Indio's five-percent Utility User Tax. But at a closed session meeting on Tuesday, the error was disclosed as involving 8,000 homes and 650 businesses.

Indio City Manager Glenn Southard, who has been in that city for over three years now, was supposed to have been auditing the utility tax, but apparently was too busy fighting certain councilimembers to catch on to the fact that the utility tax was generating much less money than it should have been.

The city of Indio plans to conduct a “comprehensive” audit of the Imperial Irrigation District's tax collection practices after discovering that nearly one-third of Indio's households have not been paying a Utility Users Tax supposedly attached to their energy bills.

Now, to be fair, the billing and collection error appears the fault of IID. And the tax has been in place over 20 years, so there are plenty of other people in Indio's city hall who should have caught on to the missing tax income.

But you would think that a self-proclaimed genius such as Southard would have noticed immediately that the utility tax revenue was far short of what projections would have shown. Of course, as he did for years in Claremont, Southard was quick to shift the blame in Indio. It's the ol' misdirection again - something we're still seeing here in Claremont, even after Southard's departure in 2005.

Southard's threatening a suit against IID and distracting the community and the Indio city council from the city manager's own failure:

Failure to collect fully on the tax for more than 20 years has potentially cost the Coachella Valley's largest city millions in revenue — money that helps pay for city services, including police protection.

“We've been wronged and it's wrong,” said City Manager Glenn Southard on Tuesday at a special City Council meeting to discuss the matter.

“It's millions,” he said of the lost revenue. “It makes me sick to think about it.”

Indio has not ruled out a possible lawsuit against the district for non-collection of the utility tax, officials said.

Southard's great at creating a distracting enemy to focus on, and you can also count on him to have his staff spinning hard, coming up with handy statistics and graphs to show how none of this was His Southardness' fault. You can hardly blame him. He is, after all, spinning to save his job.

Expect the Desert Sun to lap up all those stats and graphs without much in-depth analysis, and look for Southard to cut a deal with IID that allows them to save dollars and face while keeping Southard safe from any blame.

It's instructive for us here in Claremont to watch and remember how he played these games. There's still a tendency among some of the Claremonsters in town to play the same sort of PR games (think Cookiemonster). But 17 years of Southardian excesses have sharpened our critical skills, so we're much less susceptible to manipulation politicking that comes with our friend Glenn, especially in times of crises.

We'll see what Indio's learning curve is. A word to the wise, Indio, from longtime Southard watchers: Watch out for the spitball.