Richland Council tightens grip on Recreation Commission funding

Richland County Recreation Commission operates the widely used gymnasium at the Crane Creek Community Center on Fairfield Road.
Richland County Recreation Commission operates the widely used gymnasium at the Crane Creek Community Center on Fairfield Road. mbergen@thestate.com

Richland County Council will freeze the majority of the next year’s funding for the embattled Richland County Recreation Commission at a portion of what the department has asked for until an audit examines how the department’s funds are spent.

The county has funded the commission, which operates and maintains the county’s parks and recreational facilities, at almost three times as much as the law requires. Council decided it will not release the department’s funding above the required amount until it can ensure the money is being spent properly.

“My concern is that we are responsible to taxpayers for money that is being spent for an agency that we have no control over how they spend the money,” Councilman Greg Pearce said. “At least in my tenure, 18 years, we’ve never had a millage agency that has had so many allegations leveled against it.”

In recent weeks, numerous lawsuits have been filed against the commission, some of its board members and its executive director, James Brown III. The lawsuits and other complaints have accused Brown and others of misconduct including sexual harassment and bribery, among other allegations.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department, State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI are investigating the commission.

Last weekend, Brown’s son, who is the commission’s director of recreation, was arrested and charged with multiple drug offenses, including trafficking meth and marijuana.

The state requires the county to fund the Recreation Commission, but the county has no oversight over the department. The Richland County legislative delegation, rather, appoints the seven-member board that oversees the commission.

Tightening the county’s grip on the commission’s funding is maybe “the only way to get the Legislature’s attention that the law is grossly inadequate” regarding the commission’s accountability to taxpayers, said Councilman Seth Rose.

State law requires the county to fund the commission at about $4.9 million for the 2016-17 financial year, which begins July 1. In the past year, the commission received $13.3 million from Richland County. It had requested a $400,000 increase for the next year.

County Council intends to release another $8.4 million to the commission for a total equal to its previous budget after an audit has been conducted. Pearce said the intent is not to limit recreational services for residents.

The Recreation Commission is required to conduct an annual financial audit, as are all agencies that receive property tax money from the county, county administrator Tony McDonald said.

The requested audit will look at the commission’s operations and spending, and the auditing firm will be selected by the county administrator and staff, rather than the commission or its board. Council did not identify how it wished the audit to be paid for.

County Council will finalize the Recreation Commission spending plan and the entire county budget next Thursday.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.