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County tells park district it needs better cash management

King County’s highest financial official said the county won’t let the Vashon Park District default, a specter raised last week after the agency’s four commissioners failed to reach an agreement on a plan to pay off a $410,000 loan due Dec. 31.

Ken Guy, the county’s director of finance, said that it’s the county’s job “to ensure that the district pays its debt service obligations on time.” The county would step in to ensure that happened, he added, but only “in a worst-case scenario.”

The finance director talked to two of the four board members, Chair Bill Ameling and Commissioner David Hackett, last week, after news of the park district’s escalating cash-flow crisis spread. According to Guy, he urged Ameling to see to it that the park district develops accurate and reliable cash flow predictions, works with a financial advisor who understands government accounting and builds up a cash reserve that could get the agency through financial emergencies.

“We’ll be keeping a close eye on the district’s cash flow,” Guy added.

Meanwhile, Ameling and Hackett, who exchanged sharp words at a meeting last week and in emails passed on to The Beachcomber, said it appears they’ll be able to agree to a short-term solution that staves off the immediate crisis. U.S. Bank has agreed to loan the agency $400,000, funds the district will use to pay off its existing loan, due at the end of the month, both men said. Other cash the district has on hand, as well as tax revenues slated to come in next April, will enable the district to keep its doors open, Ameling and Hackett predicted.

“We’re over the hump. The story’s over,” Ameling said. “Once we get into January, it will be boring. The drama will be over.”

Assuming the commissioners agree on the loan from U.S. Bank, Hackett said, the agency won’t need to close its doors for four months, another possibility that loomed large last week.

“It’s off the table if the loan comes through,” Hackett said. “I think we’re looking at a pretty austere budget … and keeping our operations going.”

The park district’s cash-flow problems seemed to reach a new level last week, after commissioners held an emergency meeting where Ameling announced the district would end the year $58,000 in the hole if it did not get an immediate cash infusion. But Hackett and Commissioner Joe Wald refused to agree to a loan from King County — the idea on the table last week — unless the other two commissioners agreed to furlough the agency’s employees for the last two weeks of December. Ameling and Commissioner Lu-Ann Branch said no to the furlough, and the meeting ended in a tense stand off, without an agreement.

In the days that followed, however, Hackett was able to get Branch to join him and Wald in urging Susan McCabe, the park district’s interim director, to furlough all park district employees for three days — something she was able to do both in her capacity as the director and because of another resolution that the commissioners had adopted in September, calling for furloughs if needed to balance the budget, Hackett said.

In a brief press release, McCabe said the furloughs — Dec. 26, 27 and 28 — mean all the parks and park activities, including those in the Ober Park Performance Room, will be cancelled. The move, she said, is expected to save the district $3,500.

Hackett, in a statement he released Wednesday, called the furlough decision a compromise that ended the commissioners’ two-to-two impasse.

“This is the first step in reforming VPD expenses to bring them in line with revenues. … Even if furloughs represent only a modest savings, they do lower the year-end deficit and indicate a clear willingness to make responsible choices with district finances,” Hackett said.

But Branch said Monday she felt unhappy with the way Hackett forced the issue last week, calling it a political move that seemed “petty.” She went along with it, she added, only because she wanted to break the impasse and “do what’s best for the park district.”

Ameling, who knew nothing of the furlough compromise until he received Hackett’s written statement, was blistering in his criticism. In an email that he sent to Hackett and cc’d to the other commissioners and The Beachcomber, he charged that Hackett had “circumvented the board process” and “acted irresponsibly.”

“A price will be paid for this,” Ameling said in his email to Hackett.

Hackett responded in kind, telling Ameling, “It has not gone unnoticed that our finances are in shambles, with you — a CPA — at the helm for decades.”

“I’m tired of your threats. … You repeatedly say stupid things to the press and public that reflect poorly on the board. Why we keep you in place as chair is beyond me,” Hackett added.

Later last week, however, Hackett said he and Ameling were working to resolve their differences and find common ground.

“I think Bill and I both realize that the park district will continue to flounder unless we’re on the same page and have a good working relationship,” he said. “We have both reached out to each other to try to make peace.”

Hackett added that he hadn’t realized his email — when he hit “reply to all” — would reach The Beachcomber. “Certainly that language was a bit stronger than I would have put out had I known it was going to a much broader audience.”

Ameling said the email exchange shouldn’t be viewed as anything serious. “It’s just two people screaming at each other. It means nothing,” he said.

Some observers, meanwhile, say they remain worried that the park district, even with a loan from U.S. Bank, will face serious cash flow problems in January, when it starts its new fiscal year. Hilary Emmer, who is part of a six-member group that has come together to discuss the agency’s financial troubles and attempt to offer solutions, said she’s done an analysis of the agency’s financial obligations and expects the district will be carrying close to $100,000 in debt next month.

“I think it’s going to be extremely tight,” she said. “I don’t really know how they’re going to do it.”

 

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