tampabay.com

FAMU missing $2.7M of stuff

Golf carts, computers, kitchen equipment - the university can't account for 987 items.

By RON MATUS
Published April 29, 2007


If anybody finds an E-Z-GO golf cart that seems out of place, call Florida A&M University. It's missing one.

Same goes for five lawn mowers, two industrial-sized popcorn poppers and a salad bar.

Oh, and a marquee sign that cost $24, 000.

State auditors are knocking FAMU for a long list of accounting and bookkeeping blunders that involve millions of dollars in state money and could be serious enough to threaten its accreditation. But nothing illuminates the problem in concrete detail like the university's apparent failure to track its own property.

FAMU officials tried to downplay the problem this month, telling auditors the vast majority of the 987 missing items were old and worthless. But that response did not satisfy Florida Auditor General Bill Monroe.

"The fact that property items are fully or partially depreciated does not mean that such items are not subject to potential theft or misuse, " he wrote in a final FAMU audit issued this week. And it "does not relieve the university of its responsibility to exercise due care in safeguarding such property."

Missing property "is the tip of the iceberg, " said Barney Bishop, a former FAMU trustee who heads Associated Industries of Florida, the state's premier business lobby. FAMU "does not have the accountability protections built into the system that every other university in Florida is required to have."

The missing-property list was submitted to the state this month, one small part of FAMU's response to a scathing preliminary audit that angered lawmakers and brought renewed attention to the university's financial woes.

FAMU has yet to respond to an April 11 records request from the St. Petersburg Times for that material, and as of Friday afternoon, the auditor general's office had not posted the material on its Web site. But a copy of the list obtained by the Times shows more than a few surprises.

The vast majority of missing items - which had a total value of $2.7-million when they were purchased - are computers and related office equipment.

But the list also includes furniture including a 27-inch color TV and a three-seater lounge chair, scientific instruments (including a spectrometer, an oscilloscope and a beam system generator, a slew of cleaning and maintenance machines (including a floor buffer and a wood dust collector); and a eyebrow-raising bevy of commercial kitchen equipment (including an ice machine, a sneeze guard and a Hobart cutter/mixer that cost $8, 800).

"It is unacceptable, " said FAMU trustee R.B. Holmes. "But we're going to move forward and fix it."

Missing equipment is hardly unique to FAMU.

On its most recent list, the University of Florida - which has four times as many students as FAMU - reports 310 missing items, including a $6, 000 riding lawn mower and two canoes. Florida State University lists 185 items, including an $18, 000 sculpture.

But only a handful of the state's 11 universities and 28 community colleges have been written up in recent years for failing to follow proper procedures regarding missing equipment. And only one - the University of North Florida in Jacksonville - appears to have had a problem that rivals FAMU's in magnitude. (In 2004, UNF reported 1, 700 missing items with an original value of $4.2-million.)

The most recent FAMU list does not say when the items in question were reported missing. It also does not detail what the items looked like, what condition they were in and who was responsible for their oversight.

FAMU officials did not respond to questions e-mailed Thursday afternoon.

The list appears to have grown. In September 2003, FAMU listed 371 missing items, according to its most recent previous operational audit. The current list was compiled in September 2006.

FAMU says the items have a total current value of $208, 000, and says 701 of them are worthless. It has recommended that 855 of them be written off. "Such items as dot-matrix printers, floppy-disk computers, desks and fixtures, " the university said in an April 12 press release, "represented fully depreciated inventory that was purchased in the '80s and '90s."

It's clear many of the items are worthless now. But it's not clear whether they were when they disappeared. Some may still have street value.

Most of the 21 musical instruments listed (including 10 sousaphones) are more than five years old. Assuming students used them, "they're pretty much done for, " said Kent Allman, who owns Allman Music, an Internet sales company based in St. Petersburg. The net value FAMU assigned to those instruments seems to be on the mark, he said.

Then again, a pawnshop might be willing to fork over $200 for a French horn in good condition, Allman said. The university has two listed with a current value of $93 each.

The E-Z-GO golf cart - one of four golf carts FAMU listed as missing - is seven years old and cost $4, 200. But it's worth $500 to $800 if it's still running and $1, 200 if it's in decent shape, said Alexis Anderson, co-owner of West Coast Golf Cars in Sun City Center. Right now West Coast has a 1999 E-Z-GO, in excellent condition, on sale for $2, 000.

State auditors say there is no way to tell what happened to the missing items at FAMU. Some may be lost. Some may have been stolen. Some may have been thrown away.

Some FAMU supporters say there are more items on the current list because the current administration, led by interim president Castell Bryant, has put new oversight controls into place and reportedly been a stickler for following existing controls.

But state auditors still cite plenty of flaws.

Among other issues, they criticized the university for failing to report missing items to law enforcement. FAMU officials said 171 items had been reported, but when auditors randomly picked 20 and asked for proof, they got nothing on 18 of them. Auditors also found many examples of items that they said should have been referred to law enforcement but were not.

Earlier this month, FAMU officials agreed to a new policy requiring that all missing property be reported to university police.

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.