Budget troubles dog Vashon Park District

Vashon Park District’s five commissioners might lay off employees or close its popular Skate Park for the remainder of the year in order to shave $88,864 in projected overruns from its current operating budget.

The latest financial news surfaced during a spirited and sometimes raucous board meeting last Tuesday night, when several Islanders — some of them unhappy with the board — asked pointed questions about the agency’s fiscal status, the role the fields project has played in its budget difficulties and the degree of oversight the board has provided.

A few of the commissioners, meanwhile, expressed their own frustrations and disappointment with the situation.

“I’m a proud man. I’ve been here 28 years. And I’m not happy,” said Bill Ameling, who chairs the board and has served as a commissioner since the agency’s inception. “It’s clearly our fault. And it’s clearly our purview to work things out.”

Earlier in the meeting, David Hackett, another commissioner, characterized the district’s financial situation in stark terms. “We’re essentially in a boat with holes in it, and a torpedo is headed our way,” he said. The district, he added, “needs to start bailing now.”

The meeting came in the wake of several months of difficult news about the small agency, which has faced declining property tax revenues over the past two years at the same time that its fields project has ballooned in costs and it took on ownership of a swimming pool King County could no longer afford to run.

Last month, the board fired Jan Milligan, the agency’s executive director of less than a year and who came into the agency promising to raise money for the fields project from private sources. That project is currently on hold due to a lack of funds.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners agreed to surplus some equipment, including a bucket truck that the agency bought for $20,000 a few years ago and seldom uses, a launch boat and a landscaping trailer.

“I am hoping we can do more. These are opportunities to bring in cash,” said Susan McCabe, the park district’s interim executive director.

But none of the commissioners, either Tuesday night or in interviews afterwards, could say why the district is facing a cash-crunch or identify programs, projects or other line items in the 2012 spending plan that went over-budget and led to the current situation. The commissioners passed the district’s $1.7 million budget in January.

During the meeting, a few Islanders openly expressed frustration by the commissioners’ apparent lack of information and some of their oblique comments. After Ameling tried to explain the situation — discussing various accounting systems, including ones that government agencies are expected to use — Capt. Joe Wubbold, who attends nearly every park board meeting, raised his hand.

“I’m just a simple sea captain,” he told Ameling. “But I can tell a fog bank when I see one coming.”

Hackett, a few moments later, concurred with Wubbold’s assessment. “I’m concerned about fog banks, too. I think the board of commissioners has been in a fog bank a long time,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Hackett said the agency’s budget crunch doesn’t make sense, since three of the park district’s highest paid employees have left this year. “We should be $100,000 ahead. Instead, we’re way in the hole,” he said.

“I wonder if we should spend money we don’t have to do a forensic accounting,” he added.

But Ameling, a former CPA, said during an interview after Tuesday’s meeting that it would be wrong to put too much focus on the document handed out Tuesday night, which identified the $88,864 hole and was labeled “2012 cash flow projection.”

The document, he said, “is kind of like a tally sheet. We’re adding up our plusses and minuses.” By Dec. 31, he added, “The number is going to be zero.”

Michael DeBlasi, the board’s treasurer, noted that the budget the commissioners passed in January “is always a projection.” He, too, couldn’t put his finger on what shifted over the course of the year, saying, only, “It was a series of small things.”

But the situation, while challenging, is manageable, he said. “We’re trying not to blow this out of proportion.”

Commissioners put much of the blame on the way the books were kept by the previous administration — Wendy Braicks, the former executive director, and Cynthia Capifoni, the budget manager, who resigned earlier this year. Milligan, during her brief tenure, was also critical of the previous accounting system and brought in Marie Browne, the former vice president of operations at K2, as a part-time consultant to try to straighten out a system that she said no longer made sense. The new system, commissioners have said, is an improvement but has made tracking expenses between last year and this difficult because of the mid-year change.

“It’s very hard to compare,” DeBlasi said.

Ameling concurred, saying that the way the books used to be kept obscured the situation. “The people doing the reporting to us did not understand what they were doing. … We didn’t get numbers reported to us that would alert us to a problem.”

But Lu-Ann Branch, another commissioner, said in an interview last week that Milligan made it clear the district was on shaky financial ground. “She had predicted that … unless we got additional funding we would have a cash flow problem,” said Branch, the only one of the five commissioners who did not vote for Milligan’s termination, choosing instead to abstain. “We’ve known for a while that finances were incredibly tight.”

In fact, Milligan expressed concern about the district’s finances last December, two months after she took the job, telling The Beachcomber that the district was struggling to meet its payroll and that the agency no longer had a cash reserve to handle the ebbs and flows of its budget. At the following board meeting, Ameling said that wasn’t true and that the reserve still existed.

Hackett said Ameling’s statements throughout the year gave him the impression the district’s financial situation was under control.

“Bill’s word on budget issues has carried a lot of weight over time,” Hackett said. “When my CPA board president says we haven’t spent our reserve funds and that Jan (Milligan) just doesn’t understand the accounting, that sounds pretty good.”

Ameling, who is out of town on vacation, could not be reached for a response.

Milligan said this year’s budget problems stemmed in large part from the number of 2011 bills that didn’t get paid last year — “none of which I knew about when I put together this budget,” she added. She guessed there was close to $150,000 in 2011 bills that had to be paid this year.

Other unexpected costs tripped them up, she added, such as covering the monthly costs of the generator to keep the freshly seeded fields north of town watered. “We didn’t budget one penny for the fields project,” she said.

Milligan, meanwhile, came under fire from commissioners for handing out pay raises to five employees in June, at the same time that she was worried about the district’s financial situation. And at Tuesday’s meeting, Hackett, calling her actions illegal and contrary to district policy, put forward a motion suspending the pay raises. But Ameling said it could not be voted on that night unless it was considered an emergency motion. When Hackett then offered it up as an emergency motion, no one seconded it.

Also before the commissioners Tuesday night were three scenarios for how to address the $88,864 shortfall — all of which called for varying degrees of staff reductions, including furloughing full-time staff to 32 hours a week and closing the park district’s skate park on Oct. 1.

Faced with a boisterous group of Islanders, many of whom had questions or wanted to express their frustrations, the commissioners ended their meeting without discussing any of the three scenarios. They’re expected to take up the issue at their next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m.

But since the commissioners’ meeting last week, the staffing picture at the small agency has changed yet again. Wendy Paridon, who has worked at the district 10 years, announced her resignation on Monday. With her departure, the number of office staff has fallen considerably, said McCabe. Earlier this year, the agency had six full-time office people; now it’s down to three.

McCabe said the financial shortfall and the potential for more layoffs has been hard on staff.

“As one might expect, morale is feeble,” she said. “All of this affects staff more than anyone else — more than the community, more than commissioners. They’re understandably deeply concerned and waiting to see what happens.”

The next Vashon Park District commissioners' meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the park district's office at Ober Park.


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