By DOTTY NIST
“The first glaring thing that you will see is that we found no yachts,” Walton County Clerk of Courts and Comptroller Alex Alford told county commissioners as an internal audit of the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) was presented to county commissioners.
The presentation took place at the Dec. 10 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Alford’s opening remark was a reference to the unauthorized purchase of a $710,000 yacht with Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council funds by Mark Bellinger, now-deceased former Okaloosa County TDC executive director. The purchase had come to light in the spring of 2012.
While Alford’s initial remark, drew a chuckle, he asserted that it had not been made jokingly. “We honestly took the lessons from our neighboring county seriously,” he said.
The audit did find much room for improvement with Walton County’s tourism council and staff, while concluding overall that “the system of internal controls employed by the TDC was adequate.”
The audit reviewed accounts for the organization for the period from Jan. 1, 2010 to Oct. 31, 2012, to evaluate whether the TDC’s internal controls were “working properly.” Also considered was whether the TDC was in compliance with “applicable statues, laws, rules, regulations, policies and procedures.”
Controls over a $250 gift card program initiated by the TDC to promote tourism in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were found to have been inadequate. The program was paid for through funds from BP aimed at helping boost the local tourism economy.
While the audit found no indication that the gift cards were not properly issued, it did find that there had been incomplete documentation in connection with the issuance of $131,750 worth of the gift cards. It was also found that the conditions and requirements for the program did not prevent people living in the local area from “taking undue advantage” of this program meant to promote “heads in beds” in south Walton County.
Among other items, the report was also critical of TDC funds spent to provide for the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, located outside of the TDC’s taxing district, to open for additional hours for visitors, along with those spent in connection with an agreement with the South Walton Turtle Watch Group for sea turtle monitoring, and other spending to establish a TDC code enforcement section for tourist education on county code related to the beach. The finding of the audit was that Florida Statutes did not allow bed tax revenues to be spent for these services.
It should be noted that all of these expenditures received final approval from the BCC, and the code enforcement section was established and later expanded by the TDC as a result of direction from the BCC.
Jim Bagby, TDC executive director, expressed appreciation to Alford and to Johnny Street, internal audit manager for the clerk’s office. “We welcome anybody looking at us, anyone who is going to help us be better,” he said.
Bagby presented Alford and Street with certificates in recognition of the TDC’s appreciation. For his part, Alford commended the TDC for its “above and beyond” cooperation with the audit.
Bagby told the commissioners that all of the items contained in the audit had either been addressed or were in the process of being addressed, with the exception of the one related to the services indicated to be ineligible for funding through bed taxes. The matter, he observed, would have to be resolved between the clerk’s office and the BCC.
The BCC voted 4-0 to accept receipt of the audit.
Since the listing of the audit on the BCC’s draft agenda for the meeting, there had been requests from the public and press to the clerk of courts for copies of the audit. The clerk’s office had declined to provide copies, stating that the document would not become public record until it was presented to the BCC.
After the BCC’s acceptance of the audit, Alford announced that his office would be changing its policy for such situations, which had been in place for the past seven years. He said that henceforth “when presented to the BCC” would be defined as the time when the clerk’s office completes a document and furnishes copies to the BCC. Therefore, he explained, copies of a document would be available to the public at the time it is listed on an agenda.
“Anything that restricts the public’s access to documents I think…does nothing but promote mistrust…so the faster we can get it to them, the better,” Alford concluded.
By DOTTY NIST