Board dries up funding for water carnival

Commissioners were bothered by an audit that questioned handling of money in 2006.

By RITA FARLOW, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve grants for six projects aimed at boosting tourism throughout the county.

But one controversial event didn't make the final cut.

Commissioners declined to approve a request from the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce for funds to promote the 2-year-old Water Sports Carnival at Craig Park.

"I don't support it because of all of the controversy surrounding it," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "It puts us in a very precarious position."

The event, held in 2006 and 2007, was billed as a revival of a popular winter carnival put on by the city in the 1920s. To help publicize it, the Tarpon Springs chamber applied for funding through a St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau grant program intended to promote new events that will draw tourists, and their dollars, to the county.

The chamber received $30,000 in grant funding from the visitors bureau for the 2006 event and $40,000 for the 2007 event.

Eight months after the bureau approved the second grant, Pinellas County auditors released a memo that questioned how the funds were handled the first year.

In the April 2007 memo, the Pinellas clerk of the circuit court's internal audit division said there was a conflict of interest because chamber president Theajo "TJ" Davis profited from the event. Her company, River Graphic, contracted with the chamber to provide promotional materials for the carnival.

Davis said she stepped in to fill a need. When the chamber was unable to find a printing company that also would distribute the materials, she said she offered to take on the project.

Davis said she charged the chamber a small markup to cover the cost of tasks such as distributing posters and hanging signs. The chamber's board knew about the deal and approved it, both Davis and the board chairman have said.

But the memo said Davis may have overcharged the visitors bureau for the markups and additional sales tax.

In response to the findings, the visitors bureau added a conflict of interest clause to grant contracts and requested that Davis reimburse $440 in sales tax overages, said Lee Daniel, assistant director of the bureau. Davis paid the $440.

Despite the controversy, the chamber's request was supported again this year by the Tourist Development Council, which makes recommendations to Pinellas County commissioners on how to best spend tourist tax proceeds.

To win a grant, applicants are supposed to meet certain benchmarks, including attracting tourists to the county, and increasing the length of stay and amount spent by those tourists.

But an economic impact study presented to the visitors bureau in July showed this year's Water Carnival drew about only 450 people. Davis disputes those numbers, saying attendance was closer to 1,200.

Daniel noted that part of the June event was canceled due to Tropical Storm Barry.

"The bottom line is the committee felt the event had merit and was worth the opportunity of investing in it one more year," Daniel said.

But Davis said she agreed with the board's decision not to support the funding request because the event didn't meet its goals and objectives.

"If you're giving people that kind of bad news (about low turnout), you're not expecting them to fund the third year," she said.

Without the grant, plans for the 2008 carnival are up in the air, Davis said.

Tarpon Springs business owner Tim Dorr, who presented commissioners with an outline of his opposition to the grant, said he felt he had a duty to make the board aware of auditors' findings.

"It's up to citizens to keep an eye on the government and make sure that taxpayer funds are not being misused or abused," Dorr said.

Dorr is engaged in an ongoing civil suit with Davis and the chamber. He said he was pleased by the board's decision not to fund the event.

"I think the BCC sent a message loud and clear," Dorr said.

"Those that do business with Pinellas County need to do so in an ethical and honest manner."