By Soncirey Mitchell
The Bonner County board of commissioners touched on multiple aspects of the county’s finances — including the much-debated fairgrounds funds — at their meeting on Nov. 28. Public comment initially brought up concerns over county credit card stipends and how the board awards employee bonuses.
Clerk Michael Rosedale addressed the former during the meeting’s first action item, in which the board voted to approve the Fiscal Year 2024 Claims Batch No. 4 and Demands Batch No. 4 for a total of $2,857,144.26.
“It was determined that with credit cards, people have the ability to spend $5,000 and it’s assumed to be in good faith. Things come through on the $5,000 credit cards all the time, which are paid without question — which I strongly disagree with,” said Rosedale. “The Prosecutor’s Office I believe made that [policy] with the board of commissioners five, six, seven years ago.”
Rosedale clarified in a Nov. 29 email to the Reader that the county auditors do look over these credit card statements and code them into their respective budgets after the fact.
“The problem is that it appears some individuals use this policy to bypass the requirement for contracts to be approved by the BOCC for purchases of goods or services under that $5,000 on a monthly basis without prior approval,” wrote Rosedale. “That is the problem, especially when they are recurring.”
During the public comment section, resident Brandon Cramer asked what department oversaw and ensured the accuracy of the aforementioned $2,857,144.26 in charges.
“When it comes to individual invoices, we look for anything that looks suspicious. We raise red flags. We present those to the commissioners or the person entering the invoice and we reject them,” said Rosedale, explaining that the Clerk’s Office also rejects any invoices that go over the allocated budget.
Omodt’s action item to draft and issue a statement in response to a communication on Aug. 9 from Hayden Ross — the county’s external auditor — took up a significant portion of the nearly three-hour meeting. The firm requested that the BOCC counter a news release published by Sheriff Daryl Wheeler on July 26 regarding the investigation into the alleged fairgrounds fraud.
Omodt read part of Hayden Ross’ communication, which he entered into the public record to be made available with the notes and minutes of the Nov. 28 meeting.
“The Bonner County Sheriff’s Office’s public release — ‘Fairgrounds Fraud’ on July 26 — incorrectly stated that the fairgrounds’ financial activity was to be audited and included in the county’s fiscal year 2022 financial statements,” read Omodt.
Hayden Ross and Rosedale maintain that the county has never audited the entirety of the fair’s finances.
“We audit that portion of the Fair Board’s funds that run through the county: The tax levy, and what the county pays for (salaries, benefits and $20K for ribbons), but the other operating expenses we can never see (like the rodeo, ticket sales … the entire fair), so we can never include those in the audit (obviously),” Rosedale told the Reader in an Oct. 18 email.
The communication from Hayden Ross, read by Omodt, elaborated on that point:
“The fiscal year 2022 did not include the assets, liabilities, equity, revenues or expenditures of the fair operations, which were kept in a separate accounting system maintained by [late-Fairgrounds Director] Darcy Smith.”
Members of the public raised concerns that the board would be overstepping its authority if it attempted to correct a statement made by another elected official — in this case the sheriff — however, Omodt argued that anything pertaining to the audit falls under the board’s jurisdiction.
“The BOCC is going to draft a response to the continued misinformation presented by Sheriff Daryl Wheeler,” Omodt told the Reader in a Nov. 28 email. “Idaho law is clear, the audit is the responsibility of the BOCC, not the sheriff.”
Omodt emphasized that it’s in the best interest of the county to ensure that Hayden Ross completes its annual external audit so that Bonner County remains eligible for state and federal funding.
“Without a completed audit, Bonner County could lose $11 million in revenue, drastically cutting services of all county departments, especially EMS, Road and Bridge and Public Safety,” Omodt told the Reader in an email. “I do not support cutting services to hardworking taxpayers based upon inaccurate information, overreach and pride.”
Commissioner Asia Williams stated that she neither agreed nor disagreed with Omodt’s motion; however, she felt that the BOCC should decide the matter in a public workshop in which the sheriff, legal counsel and the public would have the opportunity to weigh in.
“I see that we’re going to get flagged for, ‘This wasn’t really noticed for what you’re trying to do.’ And we don’t have a legal opinion, and quite honestly your motion just says that you want to write something,” she said, directing her comments to Omodt. “It really should be that you have written it and that you’re presenting it.”
Williams agreed with public concern that the board could be overstepping its authority, and cautioned against opening the county to more lawsuits.
“What you’re saying is that you can correct Sheriff Wheeler, which is a dangerous spot to be put in, in terms of litigation,” she said.
Williams said it is likely that the sheriff will publish a response to the county’s statement, potentially starting a lengthy back-and-forth conversation between his office and the auditors. In response to this concern, Omodt moved to amend his motion to specify that the external auditor “will not respond to the correspondence sent by any office other than that of the prosecutor, the clerk or the board of county commissioners” or the treasurer.
The motion carried with Williams dissenting.
Omodt then called for a vote on his amended motion, which also passed despite Williams’ opposition.
“There’s no requirement in this motion that [the response] go through legal. It’s a way to circumvent legal, which opens us up to more legal [issues]” she added, explaining her vote of “no.”
The board will publicly release its response to the sheriff’s statement at a yet-to-be-determined date.
The meeting continued on to Williams’ action items, including her motion to hold quarterly budget reviews to keep elected officials, employees and members of the public up to date on the county’s finances.
“It will help us to understand where we might be underfunding. It will help us to address the movement of money throughout the county. It will help us to anticipate some potential increases in costs that we may not have caught,” said Williams.
The commissioners, members of the public, and Rosedale all expressed their support — with the clerk adding that the county presented quarterly budget updates until 2021, when a staffing change made it too difficult to keep up with the schedule.
“We can do that again. In fact, we have July’s done, but we can have October’s done by next week so everybody can see exactly where we are in real time,” said Rosedale.
There was some argument over whether or not the county could include the fairgrounds’ finances in these reports.
“Right now we still can’t see what the Fair Board’s doing, so we can’t vouch for anything the Fair Board’s doing. As far as the funds that we levy for the fair, and we spend for the fair, those would be included,” said Rosedale.
Although the county doesn’t have inherent access to all the fairgrounds’ funds, Williams said that she would personally attempt to obtain the required records for the quarterly meetings.
“There’s nothing wrong with calling the fair saying, ‘We’re doing a quarterly budget review. This is what we need you to present on this day. Please come,’” she said.
William’s motion passed unanimously.
The board tabled Williams’ final motion to archive all public records requests and responses on the county’s website — which would make them available to all members of the public — pending legal review.
*This article has been edited to clarify that the fairgrounds fraud investigation did not originate with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office.
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