Leader Blues

Friday, May 02, 2008

TOP STORY > >Audit finds more problems in Cabot parks’ books

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff writer

The State Police investigation into Cabot Parks that started this week will include several thousand dollars held out of employees’ paychecks for state taxes but not paid to the state.

The exact amount that was withheld but not remitted is unclear, though one source said it was about $13,000.

Mike Brannon, chairman of the commission that runs the parks, said he should have more information later, but it is likely that the unpaid tax bill is connected to the embezzlement by a park bookkeeper.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a tremendous amount, but it’s going to be some,” Brannon said. “I think it happened when all the other stuff did.”

Lonoke County Prosecutor Lona McCastlain called for the State Police investigation in January after Sarah Michelle Rye, a former bookkeeper for the parks department, admitted to embezzling $8,063.44 by writing herself duplicate paychecks over a two-year period.

Brannon said he doesn’t think that sort of thing will happen again. He also believes the parks commission, which has four new members who were appointed since Mayor Eddie Joe Williams took office, is taking a more hands-on approach to the parks’ finances, especially since a shortfall at the end of 2007 required the commission to ask the city for about $100,000 to start 2008.

“The people on the board right now – all of them – it’s like we’re not going to put up with this stuff anymore,” Brannon said.
Carroll Astin, hired as parks director about 10 years ago, resigned in April, saying he had been a public servant most of his adult life and it was time to move on to the private sector.

Rye was sentenced in circuit court April 9 to five years probation, three of which are supervised. At the end of the five years, she may petition the court to have her criminal record sealed.

Rye also had to make restitution of $8,063.44 that day and pay a fine of $500 and other fees, including $150 court cost and $250 for DNA testing.

If the State Police investigation shows that Rye is connected to the failure to remit the state income tax and she is found guilty of other felony charges, she would face jail time and lose her ability to petition the court to have her record sealed.

Larry Tarrant, the program director for parks, took over as interim director when Astin resigned and is one of nine applicants for the director’s position.

Tarrant attended the regular commission meeting Thursday and talked about ways to increase revenue and cut down on expenses.

To increase revenue, for example, Camp Cabot, parks’ summer daycare program, will cost $12 this year instead of $5. To cut down on cost, Tarrant proposed giving up sponsorship of Strawberry Fest, which he said lost money for parks this year.

Instead, Tarrant proposed leasing the space for the festival but asking a nonprofit organization to host the annual event.