Thanks to the County Commissioners and staff and reporter Jake Martin for exposing UF's flummery, dupery and nincompoopery for University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) accounting.
Oh, and we want Keith Fuller back as our agricultural agent!
Posted November 21, 2016 05:33 am - Updated November 21, 2016 05:56 am
By JAKE MARTIN email@example.com
County will pay UF/IFAS’s outstanding invoice despite ‘sloppy’ administration at Hastings; agreement to be renegotiated
St. Johns County will pay an outstanding invoice from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for its operations at the Hastings Agricultural Extension Center, but will also renegotiate its agreement with the university after reviewing some troubling findings from a recent audit.
Regina Ross, deputy county attorney, told commissioners at their Nov. 15 meeting she determined projects outlined in the agreement were “substantially completed,” despite a lack of paperwork and some sloppy bookkeeping. She said there were areas of non-compliance and partial compliance, mixed in with deliverables that did, ultimately, seem to come to fruition.
The county, on May 23, filed a public records request for documents from the university demonstrating its compliance with the Extension Demonstration Agreement, signed by both parties in May 2012, concerning county-subsidized operations at the Hastings facilities. The county’s annual contribution of $93,599 accounts for about 30 percent of the Hastings center’s operating funds each year.
According to a statement of work attached to the agreement, UF’s operations in Hastings are supposed to include demonstration and research projects in a variety of areas “to strengthen agricultural production systems in the region, as well as, strengthen the regional economy.” These areas include commercial vegetable crop production, alternative crop production, livestock and forage, nutrient and water management, and marketing and “agri-tourism.”
Commission Chair Jeb Smith, at the July 19 commission meeting, said the audit was requested because he had a “very strong conviction” the university was out of compliance with the funding parameters.
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“There are some matters that need to be cleaned up,” he said.
Records were to be provided no later than June 27 for the period of May 1, 2013, through May 1, 2015. The university — after asking for and receiving a 30-day extension from the county — provided what it said were the responding documents along with a letter of explanation on July 27.
However, the county was not satisfied with UF’s response. (For a review of the initial records response, read story from Oct. 2 edition of The Record.)
“Based on the records that we received from them, it was just impossible for us to make any kind of determination to establish that they had done the work and that they made proper expenditures,” Ross said.
She said expenditures weren’t tied to any specific projects and that the projects themselves had changed from what was originally agreed to, and with almost nothing in writing.
The county, on Sept. 13, submitted a revised request to include “all required reports” prepared in connection with the agreement, whether in draft or final form, and regardless of whether such reports were already provided to the county; itemized annual budgets showing all funding sources for each of the projects; all records of expenditures for each of the projects; and other records related to meetings and annual negotiations between university and county representatives per the agreement.
The university responded on Oct. 14 with a mix of documents and a letter of explanation.
In terms of accountability regarding expenditures, the university said many purchases applied to multiple projects and were, therefore, hard to tie to any specific one. The university maintained all funding provided by the county was put toward operations at the Hastings facility and resulted in research and deliverables that benefited county growers.
But the projects themselves were a matter of contention as they were completed, modified, combined or dropped over the years without the county formally signing off on any changes from what was originally agreed upon.
Keith Fuller, the former horticulture agent at the St. Johns County Agriculture Extension Center who was removed from his post by the university on Aug. 4, 2015, and assigned to the Hastings center for one year, was listed as the principal investigator for five vegetable production projects at Hastings in the university’s annual report for 2014-15.
“My letter of assignment specified that I was to only assist with three fruit crops (muscadine grapes, blueberries and peaches),” Fuller wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to Smith.
He said during his tenure at Hastings, he was never asked to be a principal investigator (or informed he was a principal investigator) for any fruit or vegetable crop whatsoever. He was employed at the Hastings center until Aug. 4 of this year.
Fuller said he was never given a budget or purchasing authority, nor did he collect any data or write any reports regarding fruits or vegetables.
“There were no ‘demonstration’ signs, handouts, or other electronic materials regarding the items listed with my name,” he wrote.
Fuller also took issue with projects for which Dan Cantliffe, a former county extension director, was listed as the principal investigator, referring to a staff meeting on Oct. 6, 2014, in which Cantliffe announced he had resigned earlier that month.
“He removed his personal belongings and was gone within several days,” Fuller wrote, maintaining that the projects attributed to Cantliffe came about after he left the university.
The report lists Fuller as principal investigator for demonstrations for hydroponic strawberries, hydroponic artisan tomatoes, Verti-Gro vegetables and herbs, hydroponic eggplants, as well as hydroponic broccoli and cauliflowers. Projects listed under Cantliffe are trials for Beit Alpha cucumbers, baby squash, baby bell peppers and datil peppers. All projects are listed as completed.
A fifth project assigned to Cantliffe, on sweet sorghum ethanol (listed under commercial vegetable production), is marked “not completed” due to his retirement.
Smith referenced the university’s claim that modifications to projects were the result of requests by stakeholders, producers and advisory committee members, and in consultation with the county.
“During three years of this contract, there was a suspension or lack of utilization of the advisory committees,” he said. “I was approached by the producers saying ‘Where are these dollars going?’ because they had no input, so this was fabricated by the university in order to justify their actions after the fact.”
Ryan Fuller, senior university counsel, wrote in his Oct. 14 letter to County Attorney Patrick McCormack that the university received no complaints or concerns regarding its operations at the Hastings facilities during the span of the agreement.
“The University has been operating under the assumption that the County and its stakeholders were satisfied with its performance,” Fuller wrote, adding the county annually renewed its funding “without condition or demand” that the university change its management or the agreement.
Commissioners acknowledged there were administrative shortcomings on both sides.
Ross said she spoke with Jerry Cameron, a former assistant county administrator who oversaw the county’s relationship with UF/IFAS for much of the agreement period. She told commissioners it was her impression Cameron accepted the “administrative nightmare” for what it was and allowed problems with UF/IFAS’s record keeping to continue because of the quality of the end product.
Commissioner Jimmy Johns offered a colorful simplification of the situation.
“We had a program and it generates a purple rabbit,” he said. “We’ve got proof that it generated something but we don’t have any proof of the purple dye or gene modification, or what was going into creating the end product.”
The county had withheld the full $93,599 allocation for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 after concerns were raised as to whether the project outline and budget guidelines were reasonably adhered to per the agreement. Commissioners voted unanimously to pay the university what’s due, per the agreement, on the condition the university demonstrate funds were expended properly.
Commissioner Bill McClure asked Smith if he was “OK” with the reports, to which Smith said, “I am, in recognizing how inadequate they are. I’m satisfied with the inadequacy.”
The Extension Demonstration Agreement was in effect Oct. 1, 2011, through Sept. 30, 2016. Ross said there were three options for commissioners moving forward: initiating a claim against the university for breach of contract, renewing the existing contract, or renegotiating the contract and entering into a new agreement.
Ross said she favored renegotiation in order to remedy some shortcomings and provide protections for the county. She said the university seemed willing to acknowledge some “performance issues” and revisiting the contract language.
Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of renegotiating the agreement with Smith acting as liaison. Generally, they spoke favorably of research and programming provided by UF/IFAS.
Smith said there was a “plethora of benefits” to the agricultural community and beyond. He pointed to reduced water and fertilizer usage, increased water quality and other tangible assets as examples of the university’s contributions to the county as a whole.
He said his issue is not with researchers and “grassroots individuals” on the ground, doing the work.