published Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Outdoor Chattanooga faces scrutiny after audit


by Cliff Hightower

A city department charged with floating kayakers down the Tennessee River and leading bicycle tours across Chattanooga faces scrutiny for how it handles its records.

A city audit of Outdoor Chattanooga for 2009-10 suggests there is a high probability that an employee or employees have stolen money from the program. The audit slams the agency for laxity in accounting principles and recordkeeping.

"We're guilty of two things," said Phillip Grymes, executive director of Outdoor Chattanooga. "We're lousy accountants and we've dropped the ball on some things."

The audit said some Outdoor Chattanooga cash collections never were deposited with the city treasurer and that some checks to the department were diverted to the Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga.

City Audit Director Stan Sewell recommended further investigation to find out how much money may have disappeared and how it happened. Sewell said last week he has opened a file and plans to conduct a more thorough audit.

Larry Zehnder, director of Parks and Recreation Department, said there were indications the funds were missing due to an accounting error and not theft.

"We welcome an investigation," Zehnder said.

OUTDOOR CHATTANOOGA

An audit of Outdoor Chattanooga found a list of problems including:

* Funds seem to be missing and there is high chance of theft by an employee or employees.

* Executive Director Phillip Grymes served on the board of directors for an organization directly related to Outdoor Chattanooga, which violates city policy.

* Numerous violations of accounting principles and recordkeeping.

* Fees waived and venue rentals discounted contrary to City Code.

Source: Chattanooga Internal Audit

Outdoor Chattanooga was created in 2003 by then-Mayor Bob Corker to promote and market the outdoor possibilities of Chattanooga and the region. The department helped put on the River Rocks festival last year, created the OutVenture program that leads kayak trips on the Tennessee River and recently started a bike-share program downtown.

The audit, published in December, lists a slew of violations, including Grymes' working as director of Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga, a nonprofit charged with raising money for the department.

Other violations included improper recordkeeping, waiving fees without City Council approval and discounting or waiving fees for some groups or individuals on trips and at city venues.

The report's author, auditor Pamela Swinney, saved her harshest language for missing funds.

"We recommend a comprehensive investigation into the missing collections," Swinney wrote. "Upon request, Internal Audit will open a special project to facilitate this investigation."

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the city has not asked for any further investigation and said Parks and Recreation and Outdoor Chattanooga are taking steps to resolve the problems.

Grymes and Zehnder said Friday they are reworking procedures Outdoor Chattanooga uses for collecting money. Grymes said employees are being trained in accounting and accounting principles.

Grymes said he has resigned from the board of directors of the Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga and is formalizing a contract between the city and the nonprofit.

Zehnder said Outdoor Chattanooga also plans to ask the City Council to change the ordinance and allow fee waivers and discounts at city venues for certain groups that also help Outdoor Chattanooga.

"We absolutely agree with a lot of the recommendations," Zehnder said. "We'll handle them the best we can."

Contact Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CliffHightower.

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nowfedup said...

that some checks to the department were diverted to the Friends of Outdoor Chattanooga.

Yep and then there is the mess of "Friends of Zoo" and we can only guess at how many other "Friends" are out there yet to be heard from. Seems the pols are always part of it, yet none seem to know any issues and "it is being taken care of". Steal $10 and go to jail, have "Friends" in high places and you'll be "looked into". Seems true, "with "Friends" like these, the Region needs no eeemies, thanks Free Press, it would seem investigating corruption in this region is life time employment, getting those who are corrupted jailed, better odds in lottery. THE GOBPA "Good ole boys protective Assoc" is hard at work covering.

February 13, 2011 at 10:56 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Having met some of these people, I think it is far more likely that their department was completely unsupported with bookkeeping services than anything else. These folks seem to be more interested in paddling more than peddling.

I'd have been more surprised to hear that a river guide or rock climber was running a department that kept immaculate accounting records.

Were they even provided with a bookkeeper? I wouldn't know, but it seems far more plausible to me, in this climate under Mayor Littlefield, that there were no investments made in keeping staff on hand who had those kinds of skills.

Instead, people who have been part-time career river guides were probably told, "You keep the books." It probably wasn't long before the notepad fell into disuse. It seems to me that something like that, cheap, easy and neglected, would be just what we'd get under a reactionary administration that wants to gripe about the cost of everything, but invest in nothing. Congratulations, we may have invested so little in maintenance that we may have actually created a brand new mechanism for financial loss: an inability to keep basic records.

When we don't invest in a reasonable supporting infrastructure for the finance side of some of these city programs, then maybe we shouldn't be too surprised when accounting problems turn up later.

February 13, 2011 at 5:57 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

There are probably several specialty-style operations within government who have no accountants or bookkeepers on staff, and no mechanism for solving that problem. The libraries, the zoo, anyplace that would charge for admission or specialized services: where do they get their ad hoc accounting support?

It seems to me that there should be a general purpose accountant-at-large or some section of the administration's staff that would be qualified and capable of stepping in to provide basic aid to their own kind with a little bit of advance coordination.

If these people can't keep track of their department's financial affairs, what are they to do? While the money needs to be accounted for, how can we place a reasonable, and lead-able, demand on these folks so that they have a way to get their bookkeeping checked before there's a "big audit."

If they have no bookkeepers and accountants on staff, then we should provide a way for them to get help from the other accountants and bookkeepers working in adjacent departments.

February 13, 2011 at 6:06 p.m.
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