Will Cortez museum audit challenge cooperative spirit?

Admissions that “bad blood” has existed in the past between the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, Cortez Village Historical Society and the Cortez Florida Maritime Museum and Nature Preserve were brought forth at the Feb. 6 FISH board meeting.

Whether the three entities will rally behind one another or whether a September audit requiring more separation will cause a deeper riff will be addressed in the coming weeks.

The audit of the museum, following the discovery of $6,000 in a cashbox left by previous museum management, revealed that recent cooperation between the nonprofit agencies may have been done in a cooperative spirit, but go against grant requirements set forth by the Florida Communities Trust. FCT granted the funding to purchase the 1912 schoolhouse, now the museum, in 1999.

The nonprofit agencies of FISH and CVHS have been working with the museum to raise funds, but a lack of museum revenues and subsequent disbursements are at issue within the audit. The contract stipulates cooperation between the three entities, and includes supplying volunteers to the museum.

However, the contract also stipulates funds generated on museum grounds remain strictly for museum activities and within museum control.

This has not been the status quo in recent years, according to the audit.

The museum has been using a bank account that FISH set aside in its name for museum use, but most of the museum’s financial transactions have been cash. Most of the $6,000 discovered in the cashbox was deposited into the FISH account.

The FCT grant contract was directly related to the museum and the museum’s use of the FISH account is not fulfilling the requirements set forth by FCT.

“We have to start separating it,” said R. B. “Chips” Shore, Manatee County clerk of circuit court and comptroller, who ordered the audit upon learning of the $6,000 and whose office is in charge of museum operations.

The very mention of “separation” brought back defensive memories for FISH board members at their Feb. 6 meeting, where the audit results were discussed.

“I’m grateful to the county to help us redo the museum, but I don’t want to lose all of our privileges and start feeling separated,” said FISH facilities chairperson Debbie Ibasfalean. “How did you come to the flat determination that the $6,000 couldn’t get split down the middle between FISH and the museum?”

Shore explained that the audit determined that the $6,000 was raised through museum activities and the FCT contract stipulates that the money belongs to the museum, so must be used for the museum.

Ibasfalean said a donation box at the museum has generally been a multipurpose donation box for people to donate not only to the museum, but toward FISH efforts to organize festivals.

“I have people that will go put money in that museum box thinking it’s for the museum and FISH,” she said. “They don’t know any better.”

No one involved with the cooperative effort of all three organizations knows different, said Shore, who took most of the responsibility on his shoulders for the ongoing confusion.

It’s not only about the donation box, however.

While there is leeway for FISH to conduct fundraising activities on museum property, a revenue share agreement must be reached in the form of a lease/rental agreement, with a guaranteed share for the museum.

Also, FISH not only conducts concessions on museum property, but hosts a boat raffle on museum property. All of those fundraising activities were contradictory to FCT stipulations, or should have at least had a user-fee lease/rental agreement in place with the museum.

FISH board members were surprised to learn much of what the audit revealed in terms of separation requirements.

“And that was my fault,” said Shore who noted he is working with the county administrator to get all of the organizations involved with the museum back into compliance with the FCT grant contract.

Board members were not pleased at the prospect of returning $6,000 to the museum. Some said they believe the money was raised for both the museum and FISH.

Shore said that no longer mattered, and that it was a clear legal obligation.

“When I grew up it was a handshake and a done deal, so it’s been hard to wrap my head around what has to be done in government,” said Shore. “So I got burned.”

Ibasfalean said she just doesn’t want to see “another massive rivalry. I know we have to do what’s right by the government, but I just don’t want to lose that bond.”

 

Working together

FISH board member Joe Kane said it’s not about the money. The money is a symbol of the three entities who need to work together for a common goal, he said.

“The spirit of this is not about dollars and cents or legal contracts,” he said. “It has a much more important thing. In the role of the museum, FISH is a part of that. We’ve got $6,000 and who does it belong to, but the reality is that we have a separation in this room.”

Kane said the $6,000 is a symbol of that separation.

“It’s not a financial thing, it’s a spiritual thing,” he said. “What we need is to get a feeling that we are a part of the museum and that the museum is part of FISH.”

As part of a 1999 agreement signed by Karen Bell, former treasurer of FISH, FISH agreed not only to assign volunteers to the museum as part of the FCT agreement, but also to pay the museum $25,000 annually in revenues generated from the Cortez FISH-sponsored Commercial Fishing Festival.

This, too, came as a surprise to the current FISH board. Some members questioned what the 1999 board could have been thinking.

To date, those payments have not been made, but Shore is not forcing that issue as part of the cooperative spirit between the agencies.

However, Shore said the obligation to separate funds is not negotiable between the entities.

The management agreement reads, “any fees generated as a result of (museum grounds) usage will be accounted for in separate accounts … and used for the restoration and operation of the (museum).”

It is in this language where the agreement allows the museum to create fee-based leases to non-governmental agencies, such as FISH and CVHS, which has not been done in the past.

And board members learned, such leases must be “forwarded to FCT for review and approval” prior to the county board of commissioners taking action.

The audit recommendations to remedy the existing problems include the creation of such lease/rental agreements, remove the clerk’s responsibility from FISH to solely benefit the museum, direct the clerk to create a special revenue fund for the museum to be overseen by the clerk’s office, and to update the 2004 management plan to reflect current operational standards.

The audit further recommends a precise and secure means to be developed for financial transactions to better monitor museum finances in the future.

A subcommittee was formed by the FISH board to begin working with museum staff to create lease/rental agreements going forward. Those recommendations are expected to be brought to the FISH board at its March 5 meeting, which also will feature elections for board positions.

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