The Saratoga Sun -

Financial fracas

Incoming council members sworn in, sharp words exchanged at Saratoga council meeting

 


An imbroglio that began at a sparsely-attended Dec. 20 meeting of the Saratoga Town Council carried over into the New Year, drawing a crowd of about 35 to the council’s Jan. 3 gathering. Despite being sharply chastised by several members of the public for remarks he’d made at the Dec. 20 meeting, council member Will Faust continued to assert that the community garden board had improperly disbursed federal grant money. Those charges were denied by board members, and a review of the town’s annual external financial audit found no instances of noncompliance.

501(c)(3)

With cautious support from mayor Ed Glode, Faust made the case for dissolving the garden board and reformulating the entity as a 501(c)(3) charity. That status would allow donations to the garden to be tax-deductible, a benefit Faust described as “a very powerful tool in raising money.”

Such an organization is permitted to manage federal grants of the sort given the community garden board, but the amount of paperwork required to start a 501(c)(3) is extensive enough that it could take many months to get one off the ground.

Though Glode emphasized “no decisions have been made whatsoever,” dissolution of the board requires only a simple majority vote of the council, and its future appears tenuous at best. Freshly-minted council members Steve Wilcoxson and Jennie Lou Ivory stayed mostly silent during 40-plus minutes of discussion, and council member Richard Raymer also kept out of the fray, leaving Faust and Glode’s case for dissolution uncontested at the council level.

From the public half of town hall, members of the board disputed Faust’s allegations and garden users offered impassioned testimony about the value of the facility to the community.

Seeds of Doubt

Faust first called foul at the Dec. 20 town council meeting. At that meeting, he said the garden board had erred ethically when selecting a construction firm owned by a board member to do work for a grant awarded the board last spring by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Over the two-year life of the roughly $20,000 federal grant, Saratoga is to act as the grant’s fiscal pass-through agent.

In June, the garden board voted to pay Prancing Antelope (PA) $2,254 for construction work on the garden. PA is partially owned by garden board secretary Cindy Bloomquist, and the project was never put out to bid.

Though no federal, state or local regulations require a bid process be used for awarding a project of that size, the use of PA clearly left Faust rankled.

“They’re writing their own grants to line their own pockets,” he said Dec. 20. That characterization drew harsh criticism at the Jan. 3 meeting, but Faust stuck to his guns. “When a particular person writes a grant and then receives money from (the grant) for their own personal business–that I do have some issues with,” Faust said Jan. 3.

Accountants and Agriculturists Chime In

In both of the last two meetings, Faust also claimed that Saratoga’s external auditor, Anton Mitchell Collins, LLC (ACM), had raised concerns about the garden board’s financial practices. “(Town officials and auditors) are having a hard time following the money, and when a public entity is dealing with the taxpayers’ money, we can’t have that,” Faust said Jan. 3.

A review of a draft copy of Saratoga’s year-end financial report from the auditor indicates that any complaints originated from town officials rather than the auditing firm, however. “Management (referring to town officials) has said that the Town Council may determine that it is necessary to dissolve the Garden Board and reorganize it as a non-profit organization,” a Dec. 20 letter from the firm reads. “We (ACM) do not express an opinion on the determination of dissolving the Community Garden Board,” the letter continues.

Contacted for comment, Dennis Tschacher, the Anton Collins Mitchell partner managing Saratoga’s account, confirmed via email that “based on our audit sampling and testing procedures, no instances of noncompliance were noted that would be required to be reported under Government Auditing Standards.”

In other words, the “red flags” referenced repeatedly by Faust could not be corroborated by ACM.

Ted Craig, the Wyoming Agriculture Department Coordinator who liaises between the garden board and the USDA for the grant also seemed puzzled that questions were being raised about the use of PA for construction. “(The $2,254 paid PA) even falls under what most state agencies would require for a contract, (let alone a bid process)” Craig noted.

In his supervisory position, he said he’d encountered no issues with the grant execution. “I need to know that the money was being spent toward the project and that the money was being spent responsibly,” Craig described his job. He allowed that the Town also had some responsibility in grant management, however.

Out of Town, In the Headlines

Bloomquist has been out of town while the dispute unfolded, but contacted for comment, she echoed Glee Johnson, the board’s treasurer in defending the use of PA.

“We were running out of time. We needed beds,” Bloomquist said. According to her, the brief planting window was closing, PA had the equipment and knowledge to do the work and her firm offered bargain rates for the job. “If anybody else had done this, I expect it would have been a $10,000 or $12,000 job,” Bloomquist estimated. PA charged $2,254 according to invoices.

Bloomquist also challenged Faust’s contention that the council was ignorant of PA’s selection for the job.

In early summer, “(mayor Glode and I) sat on that old bench in the garden and talked about everything (including the use of PA),” Bloomquist said. Along with quarterly reports provided to the council, Bloomquist said that conversation should put to rest any notion that selecting PA had been done on the sly. “Ed (Glode) completely understood. He didn’t care,” Bloomquist said.

She described the board’s record-keeping as assiduous, and citing extensive grant-writing experience from her former career said, “There’s nothing that we’ve done that’s wrong.” Bloomquist blamed the uproar on confusion, rather than malice, however, and asked “Will everyone just settle down?”

Asked if she would make the jump to an as-yet hypothetical 501(c)(3) to continue managing the grant, Bloomquist instantly agreed. “Sure. I have to stay a part of it. I wrote the grant, I have an obligation to the USDA,” she said. By Bloomquist’s measure, though, it would take close to a year to get all the paperwork done, in her view making a 501(c)(3) unworkable for 2017.

“I wish (Faust) had made one phone call (before making his accusations publicly),” Bloomquist concluded.

Sticks and Stones

Many citizens who turned out to the Jan. 3 council meeting weren’t present because they had unique legal or financial expertise to share on the complicated situation.

“I hope that you don’t agree with the outlandish and misleading comments from council man Faust,” said Bob Johnson, a Saratoga resident and husband of the garden board treasurer.

Glee Johnson, the board treasurer, added, “I think the thing that was the most disturbing was the remarks that were made (Dec. 20), and the painting of the characteristics of the board members.”

Also addressing Faust, Saratoga local Richard Hodges scolded, “You were way out of line. Way, way way. You took advantage of your position up there as a member of city council to verbally attack somebody when there was no just cause.” Hodges expanded that Faust owed Bloomquist an apology in his view.

“I think some of the concern here is being really careful about facts and what words we’re using. Especially when it goes out and it’s quoted in the newspaper. That can be very hurtful, as we are a small community,” garden volunteer Tasha Worthington said.

“It’ not like we want to move (the garden), it’s not like we don’t like it. It’s just that having the Town be the fiscal agent for the board may not be the best thing for that board,” Glode tried to reassure the public. “I think we’ve opened up a can of worms here,” though, he admitted at a different point in the meeting.

Before leaving the podium, Hodges had some final thoughts for Faust: “In the next year or two you’ve got to serve, use your words more carefully instead of accusing people falsely. Thank you.”

The next Saratoga Town Council meeting will be 6 p.m., Jan. 17 at town hall.

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