The Ford Heights village government is in bad financial shape and needs every drop of revenue possible.
And yet since 2009, the village has failed to collect more than $275,000 in water bills from residents.
Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say the village may not have correctly processed more than $275,000 in water bills since 2009.
Either way, that money didn’t make it into village coffers.
Allow us to explain.
Ford Heights is a tiny south suburb, pretty far from Lake Michigan. It doesn’t have its own source of drinking water, like most Chicago-area suburbs.
So it buys water from elsewhere, in this case Chicago Heights, which isn’t on Lake Michigan either but is a distribution point for lake water.
The Village of Ford Heights buys, residents consume. And then the village charges the residents a flat rate.
So what of the $275,000-plus?
Somehow dozens if not hundreds of residents were collectively issued more than $275,000 in credits on their water bills over the past five years, according to interviews, and records we obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
In other words, residents were billed, and the village forgave more than $275,000.
We discovered some of those residents had clout – including at least one village trustee and other village employees.
But, more disturbing, a number of those credits were given by the village after residents – including at least some of those village officials – said they paid their bills in cash.
So, residents paid their bills, but village records didn’t reflect they paid their bills. Rather, village records indicated their bills were forgiven – wiped away without payment.
So the suspicion is someone associated with the village may have pocketed cash payments.
Since early August alone, there have been at least six residents who “have complained about making cash water payments . . . and the money was not [registered as being paid on] their accounts,” Ford Heights Village Clerk April Thompson said in a letter to the village board in September.
Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin acknowledged at a recent village board meeting that there appear to be missing water bill payments – and that “a credit was given to [certain residents’ accounts] and the cash was never turned in.”
So what’s going on here?
The problem with figuring out what occurred is that numerous people apparently had access to the water billing system in recent years, and the municipal computer system doesn’t identify who might have accepted cash payments and issued credits, officials said. There are roughly 30 village employees in Ford Heights.
We’re told Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office has been alerted in the event a crime was committed, but it’s unclear whether her agency is – or will be – investigating.
Among those to see their water bills evaporate: Ford Heights Trustee Antoina “Tina” McMichales, who saw more than $2,500 in water bills forgiven by the village since 2009, according to records.
McMichales told us, “I always pay my water bill. It’s like $55 a month.” She said she pays in cash at Village Hall.
Jimmy Viverette, Ford Heights’ public works supervisor and a former trustee, had more than $2,700 in debts forgiven to his water bill since 2009, records show.
He couldn’t be reached for comment on this.
The irony here: Chicago Heights, which as we said supplies Ford Heights with drinking water, sued Ford Heights this year, claiming the community owes more than $1 million for water. The lawsuit was recently dropped but Chicago Heights plans to re-file in a different court division, according to an attorney for Chicago Heights.
Ford Heights officials aren’t commenting on the suit.
More Financial Questions
Dominique Hurley, who is listed in payroll records as the $14-an-hour assistant to the Ford Heights mayor, has also seen thousands of dollars in water bills vanish from the books in recent years – bills that she said she paid in cash.
But Hurley is now drawing attention from village officials because she also has been the recipient of a number of payroll advances and other apparently undocumented village-issued checks, according to records and interviews.
Since January 2012 Hurley has – in addition to her regular paycheck – received 73 village-issued checks totaling more than $38,000, records show.
We asked for documentation – anything that would explain why those checks were issued, including receipts or reimbursement forms. The village had nothing beyond a few words written on the memo of some of the checks.
Hurley said some of the checks were essentially added pay because she assumed some village clerk duties – before Thompson assumed that role. And at least one check was a reimbursement for Hurley booking an out-of-town conference for the mayor with her own money, Hurley said.
Griffin said that trip reimbursement was legitimate but was unfamiliar with the reasons behind many of the other checks, many of which were signed with a signature stamp.
Meanwhile, part of Hurley’s $38,000 involved $3,880 in pay advances that may not have been paid back, according to records and interviews.
Hurley said she asked the village to deduct the advances from her future paychecks, to no avail.
“It’s not ethical and I requested . . . those monies be deducted from my payroll,” she told us.
We’re not accusing Hurley or anyone else of anything illicit. But it’s clear that, at the very least, the financial controls and oversight are very weak, as village officials now acknowledge.
Griffin and Thompson said they’re trying to tighten up the business end of the municipality.
Earlier this year, the village began requiring that the mayor and Finance Committee chairperson sign request forms for any non-payroll payments. And the village has outsourced the issuance of most checks, Thompson said.
This isn’t the first trouble to visit Ford Heights, which has about 2,800 residents, roughly 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.
In the 1990s, the former police chief and several officers were sent to prison after being convicted of taking bribes from drug dealers.
In 2010, the Cook County sheriff’s office entered into an intergovernmental agreement with Ford Heights to assume policing duties because the community could no longer afford its own police force.
Meanwhile, publicly available audits show the municipality’s financial books are in disarray, with bleak revenues. The most recent audit filed with the Cook County treasurer’s office indicated “debts and liabilities” totaling $5.6 million.
Griffin is contemplating making the sheriff the village’s inspector general – tasked with rooting out corruption and other problems within the municipal government.
A spokeswoman for Sheriff Tom Dart said he is supportive of that effort.