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County forgives debt from festival

The Millennium Event Committee won't pay $1,229, but new rules are in the works.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- County commissioners absolved the Millennium Event Committee of its debt to the county on Tuesday, noting they had not set parameters to guide the county's support of the committee's Y2K celebration.

"We didn't determine what was too much in advance," said Commissioner Chris Kingsley, who moved to write off the $1,229 owed for photographic services.

The county also donated about $5,230 in services to the committee, a figure much higher than some officials expected to give. According to county records, the commission approved in August giving the committee what it "may now or in the future decide (was) necessary," but committee representatives stressed they would need "minimal support."

To ensure the county does not face a similar situation in the future, County Administrator Paul McIntosh suggested the commission set a policy for contributing to charitable organizations. County Attorney Garth Coller recommended the commission use the opportunity to set rules governing fee waivers, too.

Commissioners jumped at that idea, telling McIntosh and Coller to start the ball rolling.

"I think we should know what we're getting into when we're getting into it," said Commissioner Bobbi Mills, who voted with Chairman Paul Sullivan against Kingsley's motion.

Three members of the Millennium Events Committee came to the commission meeting Tuesday to explain the group's financial situation, which had come into question about a week ago. The group collected about $50,000 in services and $30,000 in cash donations but did not get a matching state grant because it missed the deadline, said Duane Chichester, committee co-chairman as well as general manager and publisher of Hernando Today.

The committee found more than 1,200 volunteers to help put on its February festival in conjunction with the Hernando Historical Museum Association, Chichester said, and bought books, T-shirts, caps and other millennium-themed items to help raise money.

"We're a little short on cash right now because of all the purchase of memorabilia," he said.

According to an internal museum association memorandum, that debt stands at just more than $6,000 to public and private entities.

"We will repay every dime of whatever is owed," Chichester said. "If the County Commission will be patient with us, we will be sure to pay that back shortly."

Kingsley suggested writing off the committee's debt, in part because the county had no contributions policy, in part because the committee was organizing an event for the community to enjoy.

"I don't believe anybody was particularly at fault" for the debt, he said.

Commissioners Pat Novy and Nancy Robinson supported the motion. Novy, who sits on the Millennium Committee, said the National Association of Counties urged counties to put on millennium events, and Hernando was doing its part.

Sullivan and Mills argued against letting the committee off the hook. Mills said the county needed to be a better steward of taxpayer money, while Sullivan criticized the secretive way the committee had handled itself and its finances. Both made clear that their comments about the results did not reflect their opinion about individual committee members.

After the vote, Coller spoke about news media attempts to get transcripts of meetings at which the committee discussed its finances. County employees recorded the meetings and transcribed the conversations, he said, but that did not make the content public information.

The St. Petersburg Times filed a public records requests with the county last week, but Coller rejected it.

The committee was made up of private citizens, Coller said, and its work product is private. The county had no right to give anyone private property, he said.

Coller then urged Chichester to make the transcripts and tapes public in order to answer the questions raised. Chichester said he had not been asked, and therefore never had refused to share the tapes or transcripts.

Chichester did not respond to requests from a Times reporter for copies of the tapes and transcripts.

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