City Councilor Michael Young insists that the city's finances are built on the practice of using Water and Wastewater Department rates to subsidize other, vaguely related city services.
Mayor James Fiorentini defends the practice, which is legal, and said he will fight to maintain the practice.
So far this year, the city has taken nearly $1 million from the water department's finances to pay for various salaries and services, including two-thirds of the public works director's salary and 60 percent of the Information Technology department's operating budget, according to records from city Assessor Charles Benevento.
Fiorentini has rejected calls from Young and other city councilors to perform an audit of these so-called chargebacks.
"I don't think it's a wise expenditure of public funds," Fiorentini said.
Young has vowed to fight for an audit going forward, especially in connection with the upcoming review of the city's 2012 fiscal year budget, which must be approved by the end of June.
Fiorentini's most recent estimate for a firm to perform the audit ranged between $67,000 and $72,000 and argued the city couldn't afford that price during a budget crunch.
Young fired back that early estimates by outside companies given to Robert Ward, superintendent of the water and wastewater departments, were in the $7,000 range.
Young remembered that Ward told the council in September that he had received three proposals from auditing firms that all priced the job under $25,000. Young said the council has never been shown any written estimates or prices.
"There's been all kinds of feet dragging and now we're going to be told on the night of the deadline for this that the figures are $72,000," Young said.
The audit would show that water and wastewater rates are being raised to pay for city services rather than raising property taxes, Young argued.
"Rate payers are being overcharged," he said. "They are subsidizing other city services. That's the reality."
According to the city's budget and documents released by the city's auditor, about $990,628 from the water and wastewater user bill revenues are used for about 11 different city departments.
The information technology department charged $251,656 to the water and wastewater departments, for instance, nearly 60 percent of its operating budget of $419,426.
The mayor's office used $19,991 from the water account, which is 10 percent of the office's $199,914 budget. Water fees pay more than $73,000 worth of Public Works Director Michael Stankovich's $109,990 salary.
Young's research shows the total taken from water fees is closer to $1.6 million, including a $500,000 transfer to the city's general fund and $351,500 to the Fire Department for fire-hydrant inspection and snow removal.
Young noted that in a previous council meeting Fire Chief Richard Borden said snow removal around hydrants were standard winter duties for firefighters and didn't demand additional overtime or funding.
"It's been since time beginning and since fire departments had hydrants," he said. "It's been something he's done since he's been on the department and chief."
Also taken from the water department account were $28,000 worth of highway expenses and $135,374 for highway department salaries, according to city records that Young produced.
City Solicitor William Cox has noted that the city has the full legal right to perform such transactions. The Water Department is self-funding, which means that 100 percent of its operating budget and any money needed for repairs to the system must come from the water and wastewater fees that city users pay.
However, any money not spent by the water department is free for use by the city.
"That's the end of the conversation," Young said. "If everything is above board there should be no reason to be against this audit. If we seek transparency and openness, then let's do the audit."
Fioretini said that he'd veto any council measure that would attempt to change how much the city draws from the water and wastewater departments.
"You'll need six votes, Councilor, as you'll have to do it over my veto," the mayor told Young.
Forentini said the flexibility offered by the ability to use water and wastewater department fees helps him avoid further cuts throughout the city.
"If you eliminate these charges, everyone knows what will happen. The position taken by Councilor Young is clear; Councilor Young thinks your taxes are too low," Fiorentini said.