Chamber financials still in disarray

BLYTHEWOOD – Almost a year after the Blythewood Chamber Commerce was not able to produce a credible set of books to Town Hall for the previous budget year, the Chamber’s Board Chairman Phil Fry told Council Monday evening that it still does not have a working budget, or even a draft budget, to present to Council.

The occasion was an aborted attempt by the Chamber’s Executive Director Mike Switzer (as listed in the agenda) to request $20,500 from the Town’s FY 19/20 budget – $17,000 for an economic development work subsidy (previously called a grant by town officials) and $3,500 for an ‘elite partner’ annual membership for the Town at the Premier Level.

Standing in for Switzer, the Chamber’s Chairman-elect Phil Frye asked council to withdraw a funding request that appeared on the agenda.

“The chamber is making its internal budget cycle (inaudible)…we’re in the process of (inaudible),” Frye said. “We feel it is premature to make any further request of council at this time. Therefore, I respectfully request discussion be deferred to a later date, for the chamber to present any and all requests for discussion during the council’s budget workshops on May 9 and May 23.”

Mayor J. Michael Ross, who is co-landlord of the McNulty Plaza offices rented by the Chamber, did not participate in the Chamber discussions. Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Baughman conducted the discussion.

“Do you have a working budget at this time?” Baughman asked, then answered, “You said you do not. You do not have even a draft of your budget? We want to see a hard copy of your budget and how the funds requested by the chamber are spent,” Baughman said. ”We’ve asked for financials [in the past] and haven’t gotten them. We would like to see some monthly financials from the Chamber.”

Baughman also asked about a business [The Guilded Iris] that the Chamber is now subletting a portion of its offices to.

“Now that you have a business operating in your Chamber space, how is that going to affect your budget and your request as you’ll be receiving rental income from the business operating inside the Chamber,” Baughman asked. “And will you be expanding the business’ space and decreasing the space used by the Chamber?” Baughman asked.

“You should be transparent,” Baughman continued. “I think the public has a right to know how public money is being spent. I don’t know how much rent you pay or the percent [of your rent] that the Guilded Iris pays you for rent. How will that affect your upcoming budget request and your year-to-year budget?”

“When we come back for the budget [work sessions], these are some of the things I’d like to see,” Baughman told Frye. “The Town’s budget is transparent. We share our financials with the public monthly, and we expect to hear from you [Chamber] monthly.”

In May 2018, after an investigation by The Voice of the Chamber’s financials, 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 town officials. After reviewing the documents, CPA and former Town Councilman Bob Massa concluded the submitted financials were “confusing, lacking in detail and sometimes impossible to follow and understand.”

On June 25, 2018, with no further submission by the Chamber of credible financials, council voted to stop funding the visitor center after Dec. 31. However, that vote also continued full funding ($9,250 for six months) of the visitor center 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 announcement that it would be increasing the amount it was charging the visitor center for the chamber’s operating costs. Even though the visitor center was fully funded for the first half of the budget year, Switzer announced in a letter to members in September that the visitor center hours were being cut back.

In voting to continue to fund the Chamber through Dec. 31, Councilman Eddie Baughman said he “wanted to be fair to the chamber,” and not pull the rug out from under them. There was a suggestion, as in the past, that no more funding would be provided unless the Chamber provided council with complete financial records of how the funding was used.

When the question of the Chamber’s finances came up during Council’s retreat last month, Councilman Bryan Franklin defended the Chamber saying its books were being audited by the same auditor the town uses – Love Bailey.

“As soon as that audit is completed, they are going to present it to the board based on the conversation we had before when we found out there were some issues with their internal auditing,” Franklin told Council. “So they have agreed to do an audit with our town auditor.”

When asked about the audit, Ed Parler, Council’s liaison with the Chamber, however, told Council there was no audit, but that Love Bailey had ‘reviewed’ the chamber’s books.

Neither Parler nor Town Hall have been able to provide The Voice with any of the Chamber’s monthly financial statements since June 2018.

At Monday night’s meeting, Frye told The Voice that while no financial statements have been produced by the Chamber since last June, the chamber is working with a CPA to prepare them.