Clearwater auditor to scrutinize Parks and Recreation's special events division

Parks and Recreation has not been tracking complete profits and losses of city-related events in Coachman Park. The city auditor will now analyze the divison's cash handling and practices.
The City auditor will audit the Parks and Recreation special events division's overall management and will scrutinize two concerts: the 2018 ZZ Top concert and the 2018 Hispanic Heritage Festival. [SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images (2016)]
The City auditor will audit the Parks and Recreation special events division's overall management and will scrutinize two concerts: the 2018 ZZ Top concert and the 2018 Hispanic Heritage Festival. [SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images (2016)]
Published April 24
Updated April 24

CLEARWATER — Before a consultant delivered his April 1 report on what type of covered concert pavilion would best suit the downtown waterfront, the city could only provide him rough estimates on the financial impacts of events at the existing band shell.

The Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees special events, has not tracked exact profits and losses for city-related concerts and festivals in Coachman Park, the Tampa Bay Times first reported in February.

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City Auditor Yvonne Taylor is now conducting an audit of the special events division that will scrutinize management of funds, internal controls over cash receipts and disbursements, adherence to best practices and compliance with contracts. Deputy City Manager Jill Silverboard said she first referred the division for an audit last summer when questions arose about compliance with a contract with Ruth Eckerd Hall for the June ZZ Top concert.

“I'll be auditing everything surrounding their cash receipts and cash disbursements as well as internal control structures,” said Taylor, who could not estimate how long her audit will take to complete.

The department uses a special revenue fund of about $200,000 to pay for upfront concert and festival expenses, like deposits for performers. It is replenished with revenues the department collects, like ticketing and concessions. The balance fluctuates throughout the year but the mandate is for Parks and Recreation officials to manage the fund so they don't need to ask the City Council for more money, Finance Director Jay Ravins said.

Other overhead costs incurred for hundreds of events citywide — from salaries of employees who staff 5K runs to equipment rentals for festivals in Coachman Park — are paid for with a separate pot of money, roughly $1 million allocated every year from the general fund. Unlike the special revenue fund, this spending account is not meant to be reimbursed.

When the Times in January requested profit and loss reports on city-related concerts and festivals over the past two years, Parks and Recreation Department Director Kevin Dunbar acknowledged the spreadsheets provided were not reliable. They lacked comprehensive information, like how much Clearwater Police spent supporting an event and certain expenses like staffing and staging costs.

In 2017 and 2018, the city produced six concerts and festivals in Coachman Park. The city partnered with Ruth Eckerd Hall to produce another five concerts over the past two years.

The city provided updated estimates of the events' expenditures and revenues to consultant Duncan Webb in February with the caveat that the data was not accurate because "Parks and Recreation Department has never been tasked to produce (profit and losses) for general fund operations," according to a memo from Assistant Director Art Kader.

The unaudited estimates show the five concerts produced with Ruth Eckerd Hall may have cost the city $20,785. The six city-produced events may have cost $619,542. The largest discrepancy came with the city's Hispanic Heritage festivals: the one-day event in 2017 may have cost the city $22,143. The 2018 event, which added a second day, is estimated to have cost $157,409, according to unofficial figures.

Taylor said rather than auditing all 11 events over the past two years, her objective instead is to analyze the special events divisions "overall management process." For a sampling of the two types of events, she will audit one produced by the city, the 2018 Hispanic Heritage Festival, and one produced in partnership with Ruth Eckerd Hall, the 2018 ZZ Top concert.

"They take cash and spend cash, that's really what they do, so you have to look at the controls around those two types of activities," Taylor said.

This is the second audit Taylor has performed on Parks and Recreation this year. Her Jan. 3 report found Dunbar misused his position when he had two employees repair his home sprinkler system after work hours in 2017 without paying them. Dunbar agreed to not have any city employees at his home “unless directed by another department.”

In July, then-recreation supervisor Bob Carpenter was arrested and charged with felony scheming to defraud after police say he pocketed $148,000 from a food vendor and soccer league and stole proceeds from ticket sales. Carpenter pleaded guilty on Monday and is scheduled to be sentenced May 21, according to Pinellas-Pasco circuit spokesman Stephen Thompson.

In October, an administrative investigation into the department's handling of cash revealed a lack of controls to prevent theft and shortages. It also found that management did not ensure payments were entered into the online system. City Manager Bill Horne fired Carpenter's then-supervisor Brian Craig for a "gross lack of oversight" and negligence that enabled the theft.

Horne gave Dunbar and assistant director Mike Lockwood letters of admonishment for "failure to ensure appropriate oversight and internal control."

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Webb said the lack of audited profit and loss reports did not hinder his study. He said he used line-item costs, like security and equipment expenses, rather than the overall bottom line of events to estimate future impacts.

One portion of the city's Imagine Clearwater downtown waterfront redevelopment plan, which is still in design, calls for reshaping Coachman Park into a garden, where the band shell exists today, and building a new 4-acre green with a concert venue where there is now a parking lot.

Webb concluded a stage with 2,500 to 3,000 covered seats would be sufficient for the redevelopment because the real draw for promoters looking to host intimate shows in an outdoor venue will be the green's capacity to hold 15,000 patrons in total.

Despite Webb's recommendation, which the city paid $41,000 for, the City Council on April 4 voted instead for Stantec consultants to design an amphitheater with covering over 4,000 seats, a concept advocated for by Ruth Eckerd Hall.

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Webb’s analysis included 42 events being held in the facility a year, including 25 projected from Ruth Eckerd Hall. He estimated it would cost the city $1.2 million to operate in the first four years, which would include a new division of six city employees dedicated to running the amphitheater.

Earlier this month, the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition requested the city conduct an audit on concerts held in Coachman Park over the past two years.

Coalition President Karen Cunningham said Tuesday that although the group asked for an accounting of previous events, the city's attempt to examine Parks and Recreation's procedures is valuable, "especially if it leads to improved financial reporting for future events."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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