Noting concerns about financial statements from Greenbank Farm Management Group, a prominent Whidbey Island accountant resigned as a volunteer examining the operations of the publicly owned farm.
Georgia Gardner, a Coupeville accountant who is a former state representative and current Whidbey General Hospital commissioner, resigned in early October after she wrote a letter to the management group’s board of trustees about her concerns.
“I hereby notify you that, in my professional opinion, there are errors, omissions and/or inconsistencies in your federal and state tax returns, federal forms 990 and 990T and in schedules purporting to be financial statements issued by the GFMG,” Gardner wrote in a letter to the Management Group Board of Trustees.
“I believe there are also omissions with regard to Island County taxes. I believe these errors have sufficient impact that you should seek legal counsel about the remedies,” she wrote.
When called Monday asking for elaboration about her opinion, she refused to provide details.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on it,” Gardner said, arguing that the letter was a private correspondence.
The Whidbey News-Times obtained a copy of Gardner’s letter through a public records request to the Port of Coupeville, which owns the Greenbank Farm.
In a written statement, Michael Stansbury, president of the Greenbank Farm Management Group, said, “We think it important to note that we cannot at this point know with any certainty what her concerns were.”
Stansbury said he has contacted Gardner seeking more details so they can be addressed with the executive planning group and the Port of Coupeville.
“Our board is mystified by her reference to unspecified financial and tax issues, especially in light of an IRS audit of our 2008 filings, completed in the fall of 2011, which confirmed that we had no tax due for that year,” Stansbury said in his letter.
Stansbury did not return a phone call seeking elaboration to his statement.
Gardner addressed her letter to the Greenbank Farm Management Group Board of Trustees. She also sent copies to Marshall Bronson, Benye Weber and Laura Blankenship, the three commissioners of the Port of Coupeville. The remaining eight members of the executive planning group also received copies of the letter. They are Rick Abraham, Kyle Waterman, Val Hillers, Gordon McMillan, Janet Burchfield, Fran Einterz, Jim Phay and Robert Pelant.
“It surprised us because it’s an area that we haven’t looked at,” said Jim Patton, executive director for the Port of Coupeville, referring to Gardner’s letter.
He noted that the management group is a lessee to the Port of Coupeville. The port pays the group nearly $50,000 to oversee the agricultural, recreational and environmentally sensitive properties located at the 500-acre Greenbank Farm. The current agreement goes from April 1, 2004 to March 31, 2014.
The Greenbank Farm Management Group also oversees the commercial areas at the Greenbank Farm. The group has the right to sublease the commercial spaces, and manage events throughout the year while the port is responsible for approving tenants as well as maintenance of the infrastructure and buildings at the publicly owned farm. Under this arrangement the management group doesn’t pay any rent to the port for their oversight of the leased areas at the farm.
Patton said he performs monthly audits on how the Greenbank Farm Management Group spends the $49,950 fee to manage the non-commercial lands.
The port also receives quarterly financial information from the management group that outlines its expenditures and revenues as well as a comprehensive annual report. He said that information provided by the Greenbank Farm Management Group didn’t raise any red flags.
Because the management group’s arrangement with the Port of Coupeville ends in early 2014, port leaders are looking at how to continue operating the farm after that date.
The port commissioners in May 2012 appointed nine residents to a committee to examine the operations of the Greenbank Farm Management Group. That group is tasked to basically come up with a recommendation about whether to continue working with the management group, find a nonprofit or a for-profit entity to manage the property or have the port directly oversee operations at the farm.
Rick Abraham, who took over for Gardner after she resigned, noted the difficulties facing the group in forming a recommendation.
“This has proven to be a difficult and time-consuming process for our members,” Abraham said during a Port of Coupeville meeting earlier in October. He said there were differences of opinion on the board and a lack of clear direction. After interviewing port officials, he said that two port commissioners and the executive director wanted the volunteer group to examine the management group’s finances while a third commissioner thought the group was over-reaching. After the meeting, it was determined the group will continue its look into the group’s finances.
Abraham said the volunteer group is committed to seeing this process through and the group will advise the port as soon as they can target a date for completion.
While the volunteer group continues its work, Patton said the management group will try to meet with Gardner.
The management group has sent a letter to Gardner asking her for more details about her concerns.