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CCEDC Fahrner file

Cheryl Fahrner introduces herself in February to the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation's Executive  Committee in February, before starting work March 1 as the organization's new executive director. Listening is then-Columbia County Supervisor Andy Ross, who was chairman of the entity's Executive Committee. Fahrner succeeded Nancy Elsing, who retired after 22 years.

Members of the Columbia County Board’s Finance Committee had stern words Thursday about the Columbia County Economic Development Corporation’s bookkeeping and budgeting practices.

“If we don’t get this straight now, before budget, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes,” County Board Second Vice Chairman Jim Foley said to Cheryl Fahrner, executive director of the economic development entity.

The Economic Development Corporation is not a county department, but 100 percent of its funding comes from county property tax revenue.

Last month, Fahrner presented a proposed 2019 budget to the Finance Committee, which is the County Board committee that oversees the economic development body. She asked for a total of $121,070, the same amount allocated for this year.

Like all entities that depend wholly or partly on county funding, CCEDC must have its proposed budget scrutinized, and possibly revised, by the Finance Committee. That’s scheduled to happen at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday.

But before the formal budget presentation is made, Finance Committee Chairman Dan Drew said he wanted more specific information, such as:

  • Separate accounting for the entity’s various activities, including tourism and a revolving loan fund that offers financial aid to businesses.
  • Records to verify each line item included in the budget. For example, he said, there’s a line item for a local foods promotion program that was discontinued years ago, and which should not have any money.
  • Accounting for any money carried over from past years.

“You’ll be asking for 2019 money,” Drew said. “And we can’t tell what you have and what you don’t have.”

Fahrner said an accountant who was hired to assist with its finances was the one who combined all the financial activity into one report. And to her knowledge, that’s been the standard practice, she said.

County Board Chairman Vern Gove said similar concerns have been raised even before Fahrner assumed the post in March.

Drew and County Comptroller Lois Schepp said they weren’t accusing anyone affiliated with the economic development entity of misappropriating funds or other financial wrongdoing.

“Absolutely not,” Drew said.

But the bookkeeping needs to be more precise and transparent, Schepp said.

The Columbia County Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors, not just the accountant, should scrutinize the books to ensure they are in order, she said.

“They have to do their due diligence, and make sure the money is being spent for the purposes for which it was appropriated,” Schepp said.

Schepp also suggested Fahrner seek education on the budget process.

Some of the concerns that the Finance Committee raised Thursday were also raised by the county’s auditors, Schepp said.

The Finance Committee has also suggested, in the recent past, that the economic development group seek funding in addition to, or instead of, county tax dollars. The entity has been 100 percent county funded since 2013. Before that, half its money came from county coffers, and the other half came from population-based assessments to Columbia County communities participating in the organization’s activities.

The Columbia County Economic Development Corporation is governed mainly by representatives of various business sectors in the county. Until the recent resignation of Columbia County Supervisor Andy Ross, there were three County Board members whom Gove appointed as voting members of the economic development corporation: Ross, Adam Field and Nancy Long.

Long, who was first appointed last spring, said she shared many of the Finance Committee’s concerns.

“There is a problem here, obviously,” Long said.

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

Portage Daily Register Reporter