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Conservation district has cash issue

In a recent financial audit of the Whidbey Island Conservation District, the state auditor’s office found the district did a poor job managing its money from 2000 to 2002.

In an interview Monday, the state auditor’s spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said her office found six findings related to finances important enough to report.

“I would say that’s pretty significant,” Chambers said.

She said the district needs better ways to track its cash and needs to prove it is protecting public funds. Both the state auditor and the conservation district came to an agreement in the report that new policies and procedures need to be established. Organized in 1967, the conservation district was established as a subdivision of the state Conservation Commission to fund grants to local landowners for soil and water preservation and conservation programs. The district is governed by a board of supervisors composed of three elected officials and two officials appointed by the Conservation Commission.

In an interview this week, Fred Van Benschoten, the conservation district’s auditor of the past 18 months, said he has been in the position for last the year and a half. While he was not the auditor in place during the audit period in

question, Van Benschoten said the conservation district is working to remedy the problems found from 2000-2002.

“I was not the auditor when that happened,” he explained.

According to Van Benschoten, who is a Clinton resident, the district is funded primarily through grants. The district has a $100,000 annual budget.

According to the audit report, the district’s problems with controlling its cash arose after grant reimbursement requests were not submitted up to a year or more after money was paid out. In addition, district employees were paid different amounts in different payroll periods, and the district’s manager, Benye Weber, loaned and donated $15,539 in personal funds to the district so it could meet its financial obligations. The district also established a $4,000 line of credit to meet financial obligations, and numerous overdraft and late fee assessments were found by the state auditor’s office in the district’s financial records.

Another finding showed loans from Weber totaling $5,700 from 2000-02 to be a conflict of interest. How much money Weber actually gifted towards the district and how much was a loan is something the auditor’s office is investigating, Van Benschoten said.

According to state law, the district officers are prohibited from entering into agreements with government when an official has a beneficial interest in the agreement. In this case, such a beneficial interest has not been proven by the state.

Weber — who could not be reached for comment this week — is retiring from her position effective April 1, according to Van Benschoten. He said the search for a new district manager has already taken started.

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