BROOKSVILLE — With the clock ticking down to the opening of the 2014 Hernando County Fair, fair officials are scrambling to get a permit from the state.
But to get one, they need a verified financial report. And the verification process hit a wall on Thursday when Clerk of the Court and Comptroller Don Barbee refused to sign off on the financial report the fair association completed in recent days.
Earlier this month, a subcommittee of the fair board blasted fair leaders for an eight-month delay in completing the 2013 financial report. In the meantime, the fair board's regular accountant, Pam McKinney, has said she wants nothing more to do with the fair association. She feels she has been unfairly blamed for the delay and says she requested the association's financial information several times, but never received it.
Board members agreed to look for a new accountant to get the financial report prepared in time for the permit to be issued before the start of the fair on April 4. But in the midst of tax season, there have been no takers, fair spokeswoman Sandra Nicholson told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
Nicholson explained that the board has always sought out a certified public accountant in the past, but because of the size of the fair, it really isn't necessary. For fairs that have attendance of less than 25,000, a report done internally and signed by a public officer is sufficient, according to Florida Statutes.
So on Thursday, Nicholson dropped in on Barbee with a financial report. Barbee previously had been asked by several local residents to audit the fair association's books, but he told them that — as no public money goes to the fair — he did not have the authority to do an audit.
Barbee told Nicholson he would get back with her after he had done some research. He called Florida Department of Agriculture officials in Tallahassee and confirmed what Nicholson had told him. They explained that the rule was put in place to help smaller counties that could not afford thousands of dollars for the work of a CPA.
While Barbee said he understands why that makes sense in very small counties, it didn't make sense to him in Hernando County, where the fair last year reported attendance of 23,500.
Barbee said he told Nicholson he was not willing to sign the financial report, then notified deputy county attorney Jon Jouben.
"Please be advised that I have advised Sandy Nicholson of the fair board that I cannot sign the financial documents,'' Barbee wrote. "While my office might be the most logical choice, I am not comfortable spending taxpayer dollars to audit and review the finances of the fair association which would be necessary prior to affixing my signature to the application.''
Jouben then sent an email to county commissioners, telling them that, in his opinion, "public officer'' in the state law means that one of the county's five elected constitutional officers would have to sign the financial report.
As of Friday afternoon, no fair officials had approached Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson, Tax Collector Sally Daniel or Property Appraiser John Emerson. A spokesperson for Sheriff Al Nienhuis did not respond to an inquiry from the Times.
The Sheriff's Office opened an investigation of the fair board after a former board member gave a statement regarding his concerns about the association's financial operations, among other issues.
On Friday, Sandra Nicholson's ex-husband, County Commissioner Nick Nicholson, who is also the commission's liaison to the fair board, wrote to Barbee. In an email, he stated: "It is my understanding that no audit or review is necessary to sign the document. Maybe Mr. Jouben can clarify.''
Barbee responded: "Pursuant to (Florida Statute) 616.101, the signing by the public officer takes the place of the audit and review by a licensed accountant. I can't imagine a public officer affixing their signature to a stack of financials without an audit and review of what is in them.''
Nick Nicholson also told the Times on Friday that he took issue with Jouben's finding that only constitutional officers can sign off. He said he believes any elected official can sign the financial statement.
Sandra Nicholson said the 2014 fair is not at risk. While she would not be specific about how she expects to get the financial report to the state on time, "we have several options we're working on," she said.
The six-page financial statement prepared internally reports net income in fiscal year 2012-13 to be $24,801.79.
But the report was unclear on other points. For example, it lists $347.64 in an account kept at Cortez Community Bank. That bank closed in 2011.
Also, when asked by the Times two weeks ago how much the fair board had in all of its bank accounts combined, Nicholson said $91,922.72. The latest financial statement puts the total at $137,271.04.
Nicholson said she must have made a mistake.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.