York County might pursue an independent audit of the foundation involved in a failed deal to develop 400 acres along the Catawba River for a new county museum.
But first, county leaders hope the Culture and Heritage Foundation, which supports the Culture and Heritage Museums, will comply with a request for more specific financial records from the project.
In 1998, Jane Spratt McColl donated 400 acres along I-77 and Sutton Road in Fort Mill to the foundation with the hope a county museum would be built there.
In 2006, the foundation partnered with a developer to build a mixed-use community on a portion of the land. Proceeds from the development would pay for the new museum, foundation and museum leaders thought.
The partner paid the foundation $4.5 million in exchange for 54 percent ownership in the project. But the deal fell through, and now, the foundation and a subsidiary have until June to pay the developer $3.78 million.
Facing questions from county and museum leaders, and most recently from state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, the York County Council has asked to see the project's financial records.
The foundation will review the request at its April 26 meeting, Carol Maroska, the foundation's president, told County Manager Jim Baker.
Maroska expressed frustration with the recent controversy over the land deal, likening it to "a political force trying to dig up something."
In the meantime, she told The Herald, the foundation is "a private entity trying to turn land into profits for the benefit for these (museum) organizations."
To pay its debt, the foundation has struck a deal with Carolinas Healthcare Systems to buy the property.
Though Maroska could not say whether the deal was near complete, she said it was promising.
The June payment deadline might be extended for a year if necessary, she said.
A credible audit
At Monday's York County Council meeting, Norman suggested that the council seek an outside group of legal, accounting and development experts to review any financial information provided by the foundation.
"To have that land, which is a great piece of property, and to have that kind of debt on it with nothing to show for it is not right," he said.
York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell also had been exploring the idea of an independent audit.
A Winthrop professor might be willing to volunteer time to review the information, he said.
Foundation officials previously have told The Herald that some of the $4.5 million from the developer went to support existing museums. Some was invested in the failed development project.
Aside from archeological surveys, no earth has been moved on the property, no water or electricity installed, no roads paved. But project leaders did invest in predevelopment activities and purchased additional land to improve access to the site, foundation leaders say.
They've provided county leaders and The Herald financial summaries, including a partial list of legal and land development, consulting and architecture firms hired during the venture.
The council's request is for complete profit and loss statements and financial transaction information. It might decide to have an impartial party review that information.
Baker and Blackwell said that however a group is selected, the process must be open and conform with county policy.
For the public to trust the results, all concerned parties must have confidence in the group and how they conduct the audit, Baker said.
Who will pay for an audit is still unclear.
Blackwell suggested a good approach might be to assemble a team of volunteers.
"We don't want to even consider having taxpayers pay for the inquiry until we see the options at hand," he said.
Norman said a group of concerned citizens might be willing to foot the bill, but that idea drew mixed reaction from county leaders.
Baker said the council will have to decide whether it's appropriate for a private group to fund the review.
The idea for an independent review comes as the foundation and the Culture and Heritage Commission, which governs the county museums, have come under fire for alleged poor management, lack of transparency and other issues.
"If the council doesn't do it, it's not going to be done," said Councilman Curwood Chappell of the review.
Councilman David Bowman said it's not the council's role to ask the foundation for anything because it's not supported by county taxes. The land was donated to the foundation, not the county, he said.
Bowman is among those who maintain that the private, nonprofit foundation isn't subject to open records laws. But others argue that because the foundation was created to benefit the museums and has received staff support from the museums, the foundation should be willing to provide the requested financials.
County Attorney Melvin McKeown has said repeatedly that the county has no liability for anything that happens with the property, Bowman said. The responsibility for investigating any issues, legitimate or not, lies with the IRS, the state or donors, he said.
"If there are donors that are having some questions, they need to drive this horse," Bowman said. "The county and the county council doesn't need to be in the middle of it."