Citizens call for audit of Chamber

Gordge: Chamber Hopes to Continue Visitor Center Funding

BLYTHEWOOD – Town council has yet to publicly address questions that have been raised recently about the Greater Blythewood Chamber of Commerce’s finances and how it spent thousands of dollars of the town’s A-tax money. However, several citizens who addressed council on Monday night called for an audit of the chamber’s books.

“I’ve expressed previously that I think we need to audit how the town’s A-tax money is spent [by the chamber],” former councilman Tom Utroska said. “I don’t know whether the allegations about the chamber’s use of A-tax funds made by Mr. [Bob] Massa in The Voice are correct. But he is a CPA and I trust his judgement when he says the numbers don’t add up,” Utroska said.

“Council needs to look at how this money is spent. You need to request an audit to determine if what was said is accurate,” he continued. “You need receipts, you need check stubs and bank statements. Spreadsheets look good, but they don’t give you documentation to back it up.”

Utroska told council they are remiss if they don’t get an opinion and understand if [the chamber’s books] are correct or not.

Cobblestone resident Doug Shay also addressed reported discrepancies in the chamber’s financials.

“I can remember the chambers in my career were always self-supporting. If we did get money to do a project, we had to report our exact expenses. Reading the articles in The Voice, they [the chamber] are way off,” Shay said. “If [council] gives them more money for anything, there should be an accounting of it, right to the penny.”

Lenore Zedosky expressed her concern about the town’s funding of the chamber.

“I regularly attend council meetings and at almost every meetings and at almost every one of those meetings, people question money the town has given to the chamber and where was spent. The financial records have not been available to council in a timely manner and the same ones are asked for over and over again. And, just recently, we received a copy of The Voice and the numbers were appalling, frightening,” Zedosky said.

“So, I plead with you to require quarterly reports – not a spreadsheet – from the chamber, with receipts attached. Ask for documentation for expenses, line by line, and cancelled checks,” Zedosky said. “And I ask that you cease funding them until such time as you do get this information. I also urge you to ask the chamber to do what council has just done – get a certified audit of their books and get a system set up so they know how much they have spent and where it went. As a citizen of the Town of Blythewood, I urge you to hold their feet to the fire. It’s critically important.”

In a report published in the July 19 issue of The Voice, CPA and former town councilman Bob Massa said the visitor center, which is run by the chamber and funded by A-tax money, appeared to be little more than a conduit for laundering A-Tax money to the chamber to cover its operating expenses. Massa said the chamber’s operating expenses are not an approved use of those funds.

In early June, while facing growing criticism for charging a quarter of the chamber’s operating expenses to the $18,500 A-Tax funds the town gave the visitor center last year for a dedicated employee, Switzer increased the amount of operating expenses he was charging to the visitor center from one-quarter to one-third, effectively immediately.

Town council also funds the chamber with an annual $17,500 grant which a state official told The Voice, does not meet the criteria for a grant because it is designed for the chamber and is not offered to other eligible applicants.

In May, Council called for the chamber to turn over its complete financial records by June 12. Copies of those documents were subsequently provided to The Voice by two different council members. After reviewing the documents, Massa concluded they were “confusing, lacking in detail and sometimes impossible to follow and understand.”

On June 25, council voted to stop funding the visitor center after Dec. 31. However, that vote also continued full funding ($9,250 for six months) through Dec. 31. During that meeting there was no specific criticism of the chamber’s financial records by council and council did not set forth any clear expectations for how the chamber was to spend the $9,250. There was no mention of the chamber’s plan to increase the amount it was charging the visitor center for the chamber’s operating costs. Councilman Eddie Baughman said he “wanted to be fair to the chamber,” and not pull the rug out from under them.

At an earlier council meeting, it was suggested by Ross that the visitor center could be moved to town hall where questions from visitors could be fielded. He said that, with the internet, most travelers now check out events and facilities in a town on the computer before coming to the town, leaving little reason to fund an expensive visitor center.

However, according to a report last week from councilman Malcolm Gordge, who said he recently met with the chamber’s executive director, Mike Switzer, and newly elected president, Matt Cunningham, the chamber hopes to continue operating the visitor center after Dec. 31 even though council voted to defund it at that point.

“We will have to find an alternative source for funding,” Gordge told council. “We may continue to explore this. It just depends on where another source of funding comes from.”

In addition, Gordge said the chamber operatives are now questioning whether the town actually owns the visitor center.

“It seems it’s not an entity, as such,” Gordge said, “but a service the town provides.”

Rich McKendrick addressed council later on the agenda, asking Gordge how council could use A-Tax funds to fund something that is not an entity. No one on council responded.

Gordge said it is difficult to provide direction and accountability for the visitor center.

“That’s something we need to think about more clearly,” Gordge said, “whether or not the town is responsible for the visitor center or should offer it out to someone else who wants to provide that service.”

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