Tama Co. Conservation ‘dinged’ by annual audit

Camping preference incorrectly given to board member

For the first time in recent memory, the Tama Co. Conservation Board received a ‘ding’ on its annual audit due to granting a board member preferential treatment as it relates to camping fees.

During the Thursday, Jan. 5 regular board meeting – rescheduled by a day due to both weather and quorum issues – Conservation Director Stephen Mayne discussed findings by the auditing firm Bowman and Miller, P.C. under new business.

“You all know that this is the first ding we have had,” Mayne began. “Essentially we apparently had [allowed] board members to camp for free but according to [Bowman and Miller’s] email, that’s not allowed in the Iowa Code or the Constitution of Iowa.”

While testing camping receipts as part of the audit, the firm found evidence of a board member camping for free on August 19, 2021. Under ‘amount collected,’ the receipt in question simply stated “none, board member” rather than a charged amount.

In a subsequent interview with the North Tama Telegraph, Mayne explained the former board member in question, Allan Atchinson of Toledo, had been camping for free at Otter Creek Lake and Park for some time and that it was an issue Mayne had inherited when he became conservation director in March of 2021.

“This may seem very minimal but it’s been going on for a long time,” Mayne said. “I’m trying to do my due diligence … trying to make sure I’m doing everything properly. … It’s kind of a black eye to the board.”

Mayne distributed copies of the audit firm’s ‘Schedule of Findings and Questioned Costs’ to his members during the meeting. The section marked ‘Camping Revenues’ states: “A conservation board member was not charged for camping at a County park. The Code of Iowa and Iowa Constitution do not allow use or services of County property at a discriminatory rate.”

“I’ve been on the board for 14 years – I am getting old and forgetful – but I don’t ever remember having a discussion [about free camping],” board member John Keenan said in response to Mayne’s handouts.

“We never did. We never had a discussion about that,” board member Carolyn Adolphs quickly responded.

A discussion then ensued between board chair Nathan Wrage and board member Bryan Wacha – past chair – regarding how to proceed moving forward. Wacha shared he had discussed the issue recently with a member of the board of supervisors and was advised the conservation board should add a ‘black and white’ policy to the handbook that indicates ‘no special considerations’ are to be given or anticipated by current or future board members.

Atchinson’s term ended on December 31, 2022. He has not been reappointed.

Lake Restoration update, Fun Night fundraiser

Earlier in the meeting, Mayne gave a brief update on the lake restoration project as well as plans to bring back the annual Fun Night celebration at the nature center – an event that has been on hiatus since the pandemic.

In terms of the lake restoration, work was paused in December in order to allow the ground to completely freeze. The plan is for work to resume briefly in February, and then again in April for the final clean-up.

“It’s really, really close to being done,” Mayne said.

Plans in May include coordinating with both the Iowa DNR and different youth groups to replace the fish habitat structures on the lakebed.

A grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony – hopefully, attended by both the director of the DNR and Gov. Kim Reynolds – is also slated for May.

Camping at Otter Creek will more than likely resume in April ahead of the grand opening.

Fun Night was set by the board for Saturday, April 1. In the past, the event has been held as a night of family fun complete with a meal, a program, and both silent and open auctions.

FY 2023-24 Budget

Also during the meeting, Mayne reviewed with the board his department’s 2023-2024 projected budget which he planned to present to the board of supervisors the following Tuesday.

Last year’s budget included an 8% increase while this year’s proposal is currently on track for a 7% increase request.

The largest category increase request was for ‘minor equipment and hand tools’ with a 633% increase request – a $9,500 increase – due to the need to replace retired tools, purchase new battery packs, and replace/purchase power equipment. The need for more tools for volunteer service groups was also cited.