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Recreation league highlights positives

Palm Harbor Recreation League members say they have stayed quiet while critics have questioned how the organization spends its money and treats the public.

But after six months of hearing accusations, the Recreation League board says it's time to respond with some positive publicity.

Board members decided Wednesday to prepare a presentation for the Nov. 12 Palm Harbor Community Services Agency meeting, outlining the contributions volunteers have made during the league's 17-year history.

"It seems to me we haven't gotten any play for some of the things we've done," said Recreation League president Mike Smith. "We should put some pictures together of what the volunteer effort has done for Palm Harbor."

The Community Services Agency contracts with the private Recreation League to provide recreation programs in unincorporated Palm Harbor. It does not pay the league, but the league is allowed to keep registration fees paid by program participants.

The league also has a say in how nearly a half-million dollars in tax money raised by the Community Services Agency for recreation is spent.

The league's troubles began this year when several members of the Community Services Agency called for an audit of the league. The audit, completed this month, revealed few problems.

But critics questioned why the league was allowed to hire and pay the auditor. They asked the county's clerk of the circuit court to perform a separate audit of both the Community Services Agency and the Recreation League, which is ongoing.

The Recreation League has claimed non-profit tax-exempt status since it was founded in 1980. But Internal Revenue Service officials said in August that they had no record of ever granting the organization tax-exempt status, meaning the league may owe taxes.

But the league has said its status is legitimate and that the IRS is mistaken. Meanwhile, it filed a 990 federal tax form, which is required annually from non-profit agencies, for the first time in July.

The final blow came at the Community Services Agency meeting last month when a former agency chairman blasted the Recreation League for giving an agency employee an $8,600 bonus in 1995 without the agency's permission. Some members of the agency board were not aware the bonus had been paid to the employee.

David Brandon then asked the Community Services Agency to cancel its contract with the Recreation League. He also asked agency Chairman Steve Putnam, who was appointed by the Recreation League, to resign.

Putnam did not respond at the time. But on Wednesday, he handed out an "open letter to the citizens of Palm Harbor" defending the bonus the league gave to the public agency's employee, former recreation superintendent Frank Ahlf.

Ahlf, who died in July of complications from diabetes, saved the agency thousands of dollars by supervising the construction of Putnam Park, securing a state grant to expand facilities and accepting a lower salary because he received disability benefits, Putnam wrote.

"No tax dollars were used for the payment in question!" Putnam wrote. "Let this be crystal clear! Therefore, the discussion regarding the payment properly took place not at the (Community Services Agency) level, but at an open meeting of the Recreation League as is the case with all Rec League expenses."

Community Services Agency board member Rod Fischer said at the last meeting that he would ask the agency Nov. 12 to cancel its contract with the Recreation League if the league did not provide sufficient information as to why Ahlf was given that money.

Recreation League board members are urging supporters to attend the meeting at the Palm Harbor Library to defend the organization.

"We've never seen the need to pat ourselves on the back before," said Paul Freiesleben, a league board member and president of the Palm Harbor Little League's National League. "But obviously, from what's been written and said about us, it doesn't mean enough unless we toot our own horn."

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