Light rail audit reveals proper expense controls, city auditor says

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A Tide light rail train in October 2015. (Judah TK/Southside Daily)

A Tide light rail train in October 2015. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

City Auditor Lyndon Remias will brief Virginia Beach City Council today on the results of a light rail audit, including documentation and internal controls for more than $16 million in preliminary expenditures.

The public will vote in November on whether or not the city should spend local funds to extend the light rail from Norfolk to Town Center, an estimated $310 million-dollar project. The audit, which was a part of the fiscal year 2016 budget, took just over three months to complete. Deputy City Auditor Chris Ford completed the audit, which was was overseen by Remias. The audit revealed proper documentation and control of expenses for the light rail project, including consulting, analysis and feasibility fees, according to Remias.

“The results are pretty positive,” Remias said in a phone interview. “Because while some audits, we have findings and recommendations, this one just provided assurance and letting Council and the public know we do have controls in place, because we didn’t have any findings.”

Remias considers “findings” to be things that aren’t quite working as they were intended or that aren’t in place, but should be. The audit indicates expenses were properly coded and were fed into the city’s light rail account, he said. The largest portion of the roughly $16 million in related expenses was for $15.4 million in land acquisition.

Tom Leahy, a deputy city manager overseeing the Public Works Department, and Bobby Wheeler, a professional engineer for the city, currently manage and operate the project from a fiscal standpoint, Remias said. The duo created reports that can capture certain data from the city’s financial system. This allows for accountability and transparency related to all light rail expenses going forward, Remias said.

The public is set to vote on the project in November, but city council’s vote is scheduled for mid-2017.

“If we go forward, we want to make sure as a city, we have internal controls, operating controls and procedures in place to move forward,” Remias said.

Councilmember John Uhrin had not yet seen the audit when Southside Daily reached out for comment. A positive audit doesn’t necessarily seal the deal for city council to vote in support of the project, he said during a phone interview. If the public showed serious opposition to the project in November, council would consider that, he added.

“If the public has any desire to have light rail in Virginia Beach and to have those additional transit options and opportunities, this is the time to do it,” Uhrin said.

Joash Schulman, a spokesman for the pro-light rail group Virginia Beach CONNEX, believes it doesn’t make sense for people to oppose the project based on its cost so early in the game. True costs and expenses will be available in the spring of next year, when a bid is put out by the city, he said in a phone interview.

“People won’t have a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the project and make an informed decision [in the November vote],” he said.

Virginia Beach City Treasurer John Atkinson, a light rail opponent, disagrees. He believes November is an opportune time for those who oppose the project to make their feelings known.

“The City and Hampton Roads Transit have put a price of $310 million,” said Atkinson. “They [voters] got to kill it while they can.”

Remias will present the full audit report to city council Tuesday in a 4 p.m. briefing.

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Light rail audit reveals proper expense controls, city auditor says