By Emilie St. John
COMPTON — The city has been ranked No. 1 on the state auditor’s list of most fiscally distressed cities for the fourth straight year.
Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden provided an outline of recommendations the city could take to achieve stability to ensure the city can provide essential services to its residents.
“Compton’s deteriorating infrastructure presents health and safety risks to the public and is emblematic of the city’s overall troubles,” Tilden said. “One reason for its infrastructure’s state of disrepair is that the city has not updated its plan for prioritizing and funding infrastructure projects since 2014.
“Compton’s financial mismanagement and problematic budgeting practices have also allowed millions of dollars in certain funds to sit idle while the city could have used them for street repairs and water system improvements.”
The city released its own statement on the matter with officials pointing out that they are taking the steps needed to get back on track.
“While we are disappointed that Compton has again been named the city with the highest risk, I have seen the strides that our city controller has made in taking the necessary steps to improving our systems,” City Manager Thomas Thomas said. “I am confident that we are on track to achieving financial stability in the upcoming years.”
The city first gained the designation as the state’s “most financially distressed city” when a think tank compiled a list in 2014 after Compton was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2011.
In 2011, Compton’s general fund had a $40-million deficit because for years officials used the city’s water, sewer and retirement funds when the general fund ran short on cash, the report said.
Then City Manager Harold Duffey said the report was nothing more than outdated information which used second-hand sources to “grab headlines” by using a city with a recognizable name.
The state auditor’s report details the think tank’s assertion was accurate.
“For more than a decade, Compton has faced a persistent deficit in its general fund and has failed to produce timely, complete audited financial statements,” Tilden wrote in this year’s report.
Compton didn’t address its lack of audits until January 2018 when the city awarded an $850,000 contract to Eadie + Payne to produce audits for fiscal years 2013-2017.
The city hadn’t had an accounting firm sign off on an audit since 2011.
In 2016, former City Manager Roger Healey revealed the mayor and council passed an overstated budget and the following year the deputy city treasurer was convicted of embezzling nearly $4 million over the last two decades.
Compton is one of the only cities that doesn’t produce a warrant register for approval on the City Council agenda’s detailing where money is being spent.
In the midst of the fiscal uncertainty, voters passed a controversial sales tax increase, Measure P, which was to generate funds to address the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
The audit found the Compton’s “deteriorating infrastructure presents significant health and safety risks for its residents.”
To date, Measure P has brought in over $19 million, according to City Treasurer Brandon Mims who stopped short of detailing how the funds were spent.
“Compton has received hundreds of legal claims related to its streets and the condition of these streets can cause pedestrian injuries and vehicle damage,” Tilden wrote in his audit report.
Claims for damage are consistently denied related to damage potholes have caused for citizens vehicles.
Other infrastructure issues include decaying water well sites to ensure quality water supply to the city’s nearly 100,000 residents.
Water issues arose when the city’s fire department was called out to a fire and nothing came out of the fire hydrant after firefighters hooked up the hoses.
The city has not responded to public records requests asking for the annual inspection reports for the city’s fire hydrants.
Members of the Compton Fire Department continue to speak out against infrastructure issues within the fire stations and the lack of equipment and certifications as the city continues to approve new housing developments that will yield more residents.
The fire department is currently in contract negotiations with the city that have dragged on for months.
The city also has faced legal action from the Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board for “numerous sewage overflows” that pose environmental and public health risks.
The state audit says the city’s challenges lie squarely with the inability to hire qualified leaders and staff.
“In the past six fiscal years, Compton has had six city managers — a position that is critical to a city’s effective operation,” Tilden said in his report. “One likely cause for such turnover is that the city has not consistently used an open and competitive hiring process when selecting individuals to serve in important roles. Compton has also suffered chronic understaffing and issues related to the city’s human resources department have compromised its ability to recruit and retain staff.”
The city has made improvements in this area as it has conducted a nationwide search for a new city manager after the council declined to renew the employment agreement with Craig Cornwell, who was the city attorney before being named city manager.
Cornwell is now suing the city for not renewing his contract.
Emilie St. John is a freelance journalist covering the areas of Carson, Compton, Inglewood and Willowbrook. Send tips to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.