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Columbia County Recreation: Waste-Fraud-Abuse Par For the County 5 – County Recreation Planning – Still No Plan After 15 Years?

Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth whispers in Chairman Ford's ear during the meeting.
During the workshop, Commissiner Hollingsworth scooted behind Commissioner Phillips to wisper in Chairman Ford's ear. The County 5 also has trouble with the Sunshine Law.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Columbia County recreation was front and center for almost 2 hours last Thursday afternoon at the County 5 (County Commission). Years of County recreation flying by the seat of its pants and ignoring waste, fraud, and abuse floated to the surface like flotsam and jetsam after a storm.

Thursday's April 20 meeting of the County 5 was the follow up from last Tuesday's City-County pow-wow in which County recreation and recreation at Richardson Community Center was front and center. See: Richardson Community Center: After Months of Ill Feelings, City & County Sit Down to Hash Out the Future of the Iconic Community Center

Most folks left the City-County pow-wow optimistic. The feeling was short lived.

Chairman Ford Lays It Out

 The problems with concession stands, the 501(c)(3)s, money disappearing, equipment disappearing, over a decade's worth of lack of accountability, and a lack of any short-term or long-term planning have plagued Columbia County recreation since at least 2006. No one did a thing about it.

After dealing with other workshop matters, Chairman Rocky Ford announced: "Let's move on to recreation. The reason this kinda got on the radar to start with was we've had -- we got a lot of 501(c)(3)s set up in the County. We got girls' softball. We got Fort White boys' baseball. We got several 501(c)(3)s.”

Mr. Ford continued, “Every time these boards [501(c)(3) boards] change presidents and vice presidents, there's always the accusation of several thousand dollars going missing… When my girls were playing softball in Fort White, there was accusations then.”

Mr. Ford said the 501(c)(3)s generate most of their money in concession stands. He said, “Maybe we could go cashless on the concession stands."

Mr. Ford, an accomplished businessman, came to the meeting without a plan and asked for suggestions from the other members of the County 5, telling The 5, “I think everybody agrees. This is somethin’ that happens every year."

Commissioner Ronald Williams Remembers What Went Missing: Money, equipment, lawn mowers, weed eaters, you name it”

Commissioner Ronald Williams has served as Columbia County’s District 1 Commissioner for over four decades. He said, “Mr. Ford, you're right. I won't ever forget soccer. That was a big fiasco. Not only was money missing -- and equipment, lawn mowers, weed eaters -- you name it, you couldn't find it.”

Commissioner Williams asked County Manager David Kraus if the 501(3)(c's) [sic] needed to be audited before receiving budgeted funds.

"Most of the ones you have problems with don't turn in any financial records, and they never come get their money," Commissioner Ford answered. It is not clear if he heard Commissioner Williams.

Commissioner Hollingsworth chimed in without being recognized, "They use their own money. And then, they run off with the money. I think they do that for a reason.”

The conversation turned into a barroom conversation, with each Commissioner, sans Commissioner Phillips, talking over the other, not waiting to be recognized – the chairman once again oblivious to its own approved meeting rules or common courtesy.

Richardson Community Center board members and County Recreation Dir. Mario Coppock (left) listen to the County 5.
Richardson Community Center board members and County Recreation Dir. Mario Coppock (left) listen to the County 5.

Commissioner Tim Murphy joined the conversation. He said that "back in the day," when he or his wife was "runnin' it," they could do $18,000 of business in five days.

Commissioner Ford added. "A lot of money goes through these 501(c)(3s). A lot of money. People don't realize how much.”

County Manager David Kraus found a spot to speak:  “If they turn in all their financials to Amy [Amy Overstreet-County Commission finance head] and everything checks out, we issue them checks on a quarterly basis. We just write them a check… If the board wants accountability, we are recommending we treat it more like a grant. They would have to give us invoices and receipts. At least we would know where the money was spent.”

Commissioner Williams addressed County Attorney Joel Foreman. “Joel, these organizations have a 501(3)(c), which has nothin’ to do with the County?"

Mr. Foreman answered, “Correct."

Commissioner Williams elaborated: “They go out and solicit and raise money for that 501(3)(c) where if a bull ridin’ a wagon. Where do the County have an enforcing powers to a 501(3)(c) which does not have anythin’ to do with the County?"

County Attorney Foreman: "It's a bit layered up. We do have licensing agreements that we enter into with the sports organizations, as well as with our community center boards. And we can make it a contractual requirement. Right -- that their money – just somethin' they would have to agree to. When they are a proper not-for-profit, when they declare their status, they say what their purpose is. And the IRS – generally -- there's some exceptions -- but generally, they have to spend their money or whatever their stated purpose is… are there ways to get around this? Yes."

Mr. Foreman said board members have discussed with the administration: "How do we make sure that the public's money is being spent for the stated purpose of the organization? That's where we came up with this idea that maybe we make it a reimbursement-only basis."

Commissioner Williams said, "What I'm hearing is they don't come and get the County money."

Mr. Foreman responded, “Understood, so the ones that don't come and get County money, we wouldn't get too involved.”

Mr. Foreman mentioned a scheme where the County could set up "different pots of money" where the County could figure out the money that came "from County sources and how can we can make sure they're being properly applied.”

Commissioner Tim Murphy Opines:
Somewhere in his stream of consciousness was an answer.

Commissioner Murphy:  “One of the drives for the organizations, for the volunteers to volunteer, once they accumulate this money – we’ll just say hundred thousand dollars, in concessions, then that group can decide that -- Clint was definitely around when we started it -- when we started building batting cages in the day. It gives the volunteers an incentive to improve their complex and put their mark on… the volunteers and the people participating in that 501c3 -- it gives them the initiative to go on. But what Clint’s -- somebody alluded to what Clint’s -- Clint's 100% right, because they don't come get this money because there was a pile -- people don't have a clue how much money is out there. It's a bunch of it… Everybody needs to be a 501c3."

Link to Com. Murphy  on recreation finance

After Commissioner Murphy's extemporaneous explanation, The 5 talked about handling food, hotdogs, and health department regulations for food handling.

The County pays to build the concession stands at the playing fields. However, it has no control over them. While unaccountable to the County, various groups run the concessions keeping all the money. The County admits that it has known about fraud and abuse for over 15 years. It has done nothing about it other than spending almost $100,000 to buy the silence of the County employee who tried to expose it.

Clint Pitman, Columbia County Landscape and Parks Director
County Landscape & Parks Director Clint Pitman. The work of his crew is known throughout the Souteast for its excellence.

Clint Pitman is the County Parks and Landscape supervisor. A look at the County parks and landscapes shows a top-notch job by Mr. Pitman and his crew. His association with County recreation is not clear. The County had its recreation department at the Richardson Community Center. It appears all the recreation staff was let go or repurposed, except for Mario Coppock, who was moved from Richardson, where he had a private kingdom, to a trailer somewhere around the County fairgrounds.

According to the County, Mr. Coppock was moved from Richardson Community Center because it was thought he was not safe there.

Mr. Pitman explained to The 5 that the County didn’t know what the 501(c)(3)s were spending their money on.

County Recreation Director Coppock weighed in from the audience. He was not asked to use a microphone, and his comments were unintelligible.

Mr. Pitman said the league's "bread and butter" is running the concession stands. "Whether or not they're padding their own pockets or buyin' stuff for their league, or whatever they are doin', if you take that part of the equation away from 'em and all they're supposed to be doin' is helpin' put people in there and signin’ people up, the volunteer base is going to tell you all, ‘See ya. You all run it.’”

Mr. Pitman said, “We don’t have the money for that... You are talking about well over a million dollars just to get it set up.”

The Richardson Community Center board attended the meeting and was just as confused as everyone else. None of them had a solution and understood what was happening, as what was happening was pretty much incomprehensible.

Richardson Community Center

Richardson Community Center (l to r) board members Marquis Morgan and Nicole Smith, and County Recreation Director and former board member Mario Coppock
Richardson Community Center (l to r) board members Marquis Morgan and Nicole Smith, and County Recreation Director and former board member Mario Coppock. By the end of the workshop, the promise of the County getting its act together seemed to evaporate.

Since the County took over recreation at Richardson in 2006, there has been no plan, ever.

During the 30-year-plus reign of Florida legendary Columbia County County Manager Dale Williams, plans may have been written on post-its, but it was mainly ‘flying by the seat of your pants.’ If no one was looking or asking questions – the Dale Williams Master's plan was working.

Manager Williams and the County Commissions didn't believe in recreation planning, master plans, 5-year plans, oversight, or County planning.

The County's recreation department was sequestered at the Richardson Community Center, in the heart of Lake City's blighted black community. The City's former recreation director, Mario Coppock, was hired by Columbia County in 2006 to run County recreation from Richardson Community Center.

Mr. Coppock was given no authority over County recreation by the County's 'Great White Fathers’ other than recreation at Richardson.

Until last year, there was no oversight of Richardson.

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