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ASHEVILLE — According to a recent review by the city of Asheville, the U.S. Cellular Center’s program to help local nonprofits raise funds by staffing concession stands is mostly on target. The audit, conducted at the request of the facility’s general manager, also found that the effort could use some improvements, with key concerns centering around transparency and how cash from the concessions is processed.

The 15-page report produced by city Finance Department staffers said that the program at the city-owned venue also known as the Civic Center is “effectively meeting its objective of providing affordable staffing on the concession stands for high-demand events while in turn providing community organizations with the opportunity to raise additional funds for their organizational purposes.”

It also noted two areas to “further improve”: publicity about the volunteer program and the “cash handling procedures and segregation of duties” related to it.

Part of new wave of internal inspections

City staff introduced the document at the May 14 meeting of Asheville’s Civic Center Commission.

The review was generated by a new city initiative dubbed the Business Performance Consulting Plan. It was conducted by Rhonda Devan, until recently Asheville’s internal audit manager, and Frank McGowan, the city’s strategic planning and performance manager.

The consulting plan introduces procedures for looking into particular city-run programs to gauge their effectiveness and efficiency, usually at the behest of department managers, McGowan told Carolina Public Press. In the future, he said, the effort might also review concerns raised by whistleblowers in city government.

Chris Corl, the U.S. Cellular Center’s general manager, said that he was among those who requested a review of the center’s fundraising assistance.

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“We wanted to get a gut check on it: We wanted to make sure that we were up to par with other venues, and that the program itself, from a cash-handling perspective, made sense,” he said. “We also wanted to make sure that we were treating the volunteers fairly.”

A boon to volunteer groups, but a call for better outreach

The fundraising program for volunteer groups has operated since 2010. Under it, nonprofit organizations help staff concession stands at large-scale events, taking a small cut of the proceeds and tips.

A-B Tech’s award-winning culinary program has used the arrangement to help pay for trips to cooking contests in New Orleans. And when North Buncombe High School’s band plays in the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in Hawaii on Dec. 7, it will do so with funds raised in part through the program.

Fourteen organizations, from youth sports clubs to a veterans-support group and even the U.S. Air Force, have participated thus far, raising a total of roughly $100,000 to fund various initiatives. (See the report below for a full list of participating groups.)

Still, the city’s review noted, the fundraising option has been largely under the public’s radar. It has “relied on word of mouth in order to publicize program,” the report stated, and “new groups are not necessarily recruited, but rather, must learn of the program on their own and then connect with staff in order to become involved.”

Furthermore, the report noted, “the selection process and criteria for nonprofit groups lacks transparency and leads some groups to question why they are not selected.”

The auditors recommended that the U.S. Cellular Center ramp up its outreach about the program, through its website and via social media and other means.

Corl said that, in response, the center will issue an open call to groups this fall, and do so on an annual or biannual basis, depending on the facility’s needs for volunteer help.

“We hope to get a lot of different groups,” he said. “It’s always better to have too many than too little.”

In addition, he said, the report fittingly noted that the contract for participating groups is outdated in some respects and should be updated soon.

Concerns about cash

In its discussion of how cash from the concessions is handled, the report said that while “appropriate checks and balances appear to exist,” more oversight of the matter would help.

“No single employee should have complete control over all components of the asset/cash handling process,” the report said. “Because cash is a very liquid asset, strong controls are critical.”

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In response, Corl said that “we only have a couple of people who are handling most of the cash and the final counts on everything, and the auditors felt that we need to distribute that out more evenly.”

“We’re going to address that, and share the load between our staff a little more than we currently are,” he added.

Corl said he’s not aware of any significant internal theft of concessions revenue. “I would be shocked if any cash has gone missing, other than a random employee stealing six dollars here or there, which we have fired employees for before,” he said.

“When that happens, we catch it immediately.”

For the record: Read the full report below

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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