That rattling sound you've been hearing is from Columbia County officials shuffling an audit that shows the county's Recreation Department has been sloppy in handling money.
The external audit says Recreation Director Charlie Beale's department has been too slow in making deposits, failed to collect gym fees from many Patriots Park users and has used poor accounting practices.
Having an accounting firm criticize the financial practices of a recreation department is like a coach critiquing an accountant's jump shot - or, to mix metaphors, like shooting fish in a barrel. Still, this audit doesn't look very good.
It's pretty clear the rec department needs to do a better job of handling money, especially when the department often is compared to private businesses offering similar services.
But it's also true people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
About the time the rec department audit was being completed, the county was fumbling bids for construction of soccer fields at Blanchard Woods Park.
The county gambled that it would get the required permits from the state's Environmental Protection Division in time for the bidding process to go forward.
Oops. The permits weren't approved until after the winning bid had already expired. "We were caught with our pants down," says Commissioner Tommy Mercer, chairman of the county's Public Works Committee, which oversees the Construction and Maintenance Department that solicited the bids.
The bids had to be thrown out and rebid. Mercer says the price of the project will rise substantially because of the costs of materials, and because the bidders have now seen each other's plans. Commissioner Steve Brown says the blunder could cost taxpayers about $300,000.
A dollar amount hasn't been attached to the cost of the Recreation Department's bookkeeping errors, but it's unlikely that a few gym-rats sneaking in on expired membership cards have cost the county anything even remotely approaching $300,000.
So why is Beale's neck in a noose, while the county's bidding screw-up gets little more than a shrug in the county's tax-funded newsletter in water bills?
Maybe it's because Beale hasn't been a suitably enthusiastic booster of some commissioners' plan to give away county land at Blanchard Woods Park to a private business - one that, presumably, would do a better job of making sure patrons pay their membership fees. (Beale hasn't been a critic of that plan, either - he refuses to discuss the issue.)
Beale, who built the county's Recreation Department from its infancy three decades ago, is undoubtedly one of the finest men to hold a government job in this county. He's honest, straightforward, cooperative and far-sighted. If the growth of the department's financial obligations has bypassed his skills, the county should help him- not give him a hard time.
Clearly, the Recreation Department not only needs better accounting practices within, but better attention to its books from the county: Finance Director Leanne DeLoach says the county doesn't even keep track of finances by individual parks. That's certainly something the county could improve.
Meanwhile, let Charlie Beale do what he does best: Run recreation programs for the citizens. The county has plenty of accounting horsepower; surely it can offer that assistance to Beale rather than dumping blame on him for bookkeeping problems.
Especially when the county is spending taxpayer dollars to offer a half-hearted apology for mishandling taxpayer dollars. That sound just might be stones hitting the glass house.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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