Very few details of the state attorney general’s investigation in West Depford’s Water and Sewer Department has come to light in the two weeks since Mayor Raymond Chintall announced the probe. But the former director of the department isn’t holding back.
Edward Phelps led the department for a decade, retiring in June 2011. Phelps said neither West Deptford Police nor the attorney general’s office contacted him about the audit that raised suspicions, and does not believe he’s part of the investigation. But, Phelps added, if the attorney general’s office does decide to investigate him, he has nothing to hide.
“Every time you get a new auditor, they come up with things that the other people didn’t come up with,” Phelps said.
West Deptford was served with two subpoenas a day after Chintall announced on Sept. 20 that the investigation had been turned over to the state attorney general’s office.
Due to the ongoing investigation, the township refuses to comment further on the details of those subpoenas, or release them. West Deptford Patch filed an open public records request that was denied. Acting Township Clerk Amy Leso said in her written response to the request that releasing the subpoenas would be harmful to the public, but provided no explanation.
The investigation—first handled by West Deptford police, then handed over to the state attorney general’s office—started after township auditors of the Medford-based accounting firm Holman & Frenia found several problematic areas in the Water and Sewer Department's record keeping.
In addition, a letter from Micheal Holt of Holman and Frenia to the township identifies areas of possible fraud, in which commercial accounts were allowed to carry large balances in exchange for “personal benefit” by unnamed township employees.
“No, I never saw anything like that,” Phelps said.
Phelps began his career in West Deptford in 1972 and pursued a water and sewage license a year later. He served as supervisor of the Water and Sewer Department in 1980, and moved to director 10 years ago before retiring in June 2011.
Phelps said the water and sewer investigation is being used as a political tool and wishes the township committee could work together and “do the right thing.”
“This is politics. They’re trying to link (Committeewoman) Denice DiCarlo, the Democrat, who just took over this year, into this,” Phelps said. “It’s just wrong.”
When the story first broke, Phelps didn’t think anything of it. But then people started approaching him and asking questions about the investigation. The whole matter reflects negatively on him, Phelps said.
“I hope this turns out to be nothing,” added Phelps, who recalls working with honest and trustworthy employees.
Department was no free-for-all
Phelps maintains he never heard or witnessed anybody working for the Water and Sewer Department receiving any kind of benefits in exchange for carrying large balances. There is a very clear policy on how the water and sewer department handles delinquent accounts, he added.
Accounts are considered delinquent after 150 days without payment. Typically, the first notice of delinquency is sent to out with the water bill at about 180 days. From that point, two more notices are mailed, all two weeks apart.
Before a home’s water is turned off, a member of the department visits to inform the resident, Phelps said.
During the time an account is delinquent, Phelps explains that the township will work with the account holder to establish some type of payment plan. However, on the day prior to the water actually being shut off, the account holder must provide some sort of payment in order to halt the process. Phelps says the policy was very effective and helped decrease the number of delinquent accounts to years prior.
The auditor’s letter cites residents who should have had their water shut off due to missed readings, but never did—three of who were township employees. The audit also found employees who had incorrectly submitted their own water readings, resulting in lower water bills.
“If you’re a regular homeowner, and we can’t get you, we let you fill out the card and send it in,” Phelps said. “Sometimes, though, readings are wrong, but you know it right away when you see it, hopefully.”
Although there was no specified number of missed readings, the Water and Sewer Department tried to work with the residents to keep ensure their meter was read once a year, Phelps recalled. He added that department employees always left notices if no one was home when the meter reader arrived at the house.
“We tried to work with people the best we could,” Phelps said, noting that the department added Saturday meter reader shifts.
“That was actually pretty effective, people tend to be home on Saturdays,” Phelps said. The shifts were scrapped to cut overtime costs.
Township Administrator Eric Campo could not comment on the investigation, but said the town will act upon the audit findings. The treasurer's office is in charge of the corrective action plan and is working to incorporate the listed suggestions from the auditor’s report.