An (un)surprising SPSA audit

Published 9:10 pm Thursday, October 23, 2008

The only ones surprised by the results of a scathing state review of the finances and business practices of the Southeastern Public Service Authority seem to have been the members of the organization’s Board of Directors.

Suffolk City Councilman Leroy Bennett, the city’s representative on the regional solid waste authority for nearly a decade, said this week that board members had been unaware SPSA management had been taking borrowed money approved for specific projects and using it to pay for projects that the board had never approved or agreed to fund. He said the revelation was one surprise he had come across in the recent report released by the commonwealth’s auditor of public accounts.

It was a candid statement that stands out largely because of candor’s infrequency in matters involving the authority. Considering the widespread distrust of SPSA among area citizens and government watchdogs, however, the comment was also remarkable for its naiveté.

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The need for SPSA reform has been widely understood for years by many of the laymen who watch the agency. The authority’s response to critics has often been a patronizing, metaphorical pat on the head, as if to say, “Waste management’s a tough business, boy; you just wouldn’t understand.”

As it turns out, many of SPSA’s Hampton Roads critics have understood all along. Mismanagement, poor decision-making and oversight and a lack of a clear long-term plan all have cost the authority public confidence and likely have cost Hampton Roads taxpayers money, the state report says. Yet Suffolk’s representative, at least, is surprised at how far into the gutter the garbage agency has fallen.

To his credit, the new SPSA director, former Franklin City Manager Bucky Taylor, said in response to the state audit that SPSA will use the auditor’s suggestions to improve the way the authority does business, according to a press release from the authority.

If SPSA has finally come to see the potentially dire financial situation it is in — along with its member localities — that revelation has come not a moment too soon. We can only hope it’s also not a moment too late.