Monday, February 23, 2009

TOP STORY >> Cabot aldermen see parks as too independent

Leader staff writer

The rumbling of discontent with the commission that runs Cabot parks is getting louder.

Although no one is talking about extreme measures like disbanding the parks commission, it is clear from discussion among Cabot City Council members that they are dissatisfied with how literally the commission takes its independent, self-governing status.

New Alderman Ann Gilliam expressed recently what many have said before: “It seems like they’re a world apart from the city.”

Several council members, discussing parks after a committee meeting last week, said they want better communication between the two bodies. They want some sort of accounting of how the commission will spend the $350,000 the city will give it this year. And they want the parks commission to become more involved with the city government as a whole.

Alderman Eddie Cook, chairman of the council’s budget and personnel committee and a member of the advertising and promotion commission which helps fund parks, says he wants to see a member of the parks commission sitting on one of the council’s committees. Cook pointed out that Bill Cypert, a member of the Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission, which is autonomous like the parks commission, works with the planning commission and serves on the council’s public works committee.

Exactly what prompted the re-cent concern over the parks is unclear. But City Attorney Jimmy Taylor said last week that the State Police investigation into parks that started last year after a former bookkeeper was arrested for embezzling is unofficially closed.

“They didn’t find anything,” said Taylor, who took the lead when the city learned that more than $97,000 in federal tax had not been paid on behalf of parks department employees during the last quarter of 2006 and all of 2007. That amount did not include the $45,000 in penalties that Taylor apparently talked the IRS into not charging the city.

Sarah Michelle Rye, a bookkeeper for the parks department, was fired in mid-2007 and arrested in 2008 after she admitted to embezzling $8,063.44. She was in charge of the books until she was dismissed, but not for the last two quarters of 2007.

Sources said at the time that the books had not been audited as they should have been but that an audit of the 2006 books that was started in 2008 showed the discrepancy in the payroll.

Although the parks budget for 2009 shows that much of its income is derived from programs, the city council approved $200,000 extra for parks in 2008, $100,000 for a shortfall in the 2007 budget and $100,000 to pay the withholding taxes that were not remitted to the IRS for park employees.

In 2008, the city council assured the parks commission that the council do not intend to disband the commission and run the parks themselves.

But the aldermen said they wanted to be kept informed about finances at the parks.
Last week, several council members, including Alderman Ed Long, who has voiced concern about the parks commission for two years, said nothing has changed.