How does RCGA spend public money?

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by Craig Cheatham

KMOV.com

Posted on August 9, 2011 at 10:42 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 7:02 AM

The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association sells St. Louis to the world. The RCGA's President and CEO Dick Fleming insists the Chamber is transparent, but that's not always true.

During a recent on-camera interview, I had to ask repeated follow-up questions just to get Mr. Fleming to admit that the RCGA mixes public money (funds provided by local municipalities) with funds contributed by private companies for the RCGA's $2.9 million Economic Development Initiative. That's really odd when you consider that I read him a quote from a St. Louis County official who admitted that the contribution to the RCGA was not tracked to see how it was spent on specific expenses because it was put in the fund with private dollars. Despite that, Fleming was reluctant to admit the obvious. Finally, after he failed to answer the question twice, I asked him to answer it directly, and that's when he admitted the public money isn't separated from private money in the economic development fund.

Mr. Fleming also told me that four elected officials; St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Executive Dooley, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann and Madison County, IL Board Chair Alan Dooley  personally sign off on the spending of all of that money. That surprised those four leaders, who all denied they saw detailed budgests, and insisted they don't approve anything since they are ex-officio RCGA Board members who can't vote.

Still, the RCGA insists Dooley, Slay, Ehlmann, and Dunston get significant details about the budget. Here's an excerpt from an email response provided by the RCGA:

"Members of both the RCGA Board of Trustees for the regional economic development campaign and the Finance Committee of the RCGA Board of Directors review and approve a detailed line item budget at the outset of each year.  Then, in advance of all their meetings, both boards receive a detailed Financial Report accounting for all revenues and expenses (“all of the money”.)  This accounting is presented in the context of actual results for the period and year-to-date compared to the approved annual budget.  For the Board of Trustees for the economic development program, this accounting includes some 200 detailed line item expense categories.  Further, at all meetings of both boards, a verbal Financial Report is given, with discussion of any key budget variances, and the Board members vote to adopt the Financial Report.
 
So yes, these Financial Reports do cover “all of the money.”  However, Dick did not mean that public officials like Mayor Slay, Charlie Dooley, Steve Ehlmann, or Alan Dunstan would personally review every single individual expense purchase of a multi-million dollar operation. Dick’s references in the interview were to all categories of revenue and expense.  And in the case of the Financial Report to the economic development board, the categories of expense are granular – with some 200 line items." 

The RCGA has an agreement with St. Louis County that gives the county the right to audit the way the RCGA spends the $200,000 a year it receives from St. Louis County, but the county has never done that. St. Louis County does get annual reports from the RCGA which include a list of unidentified business contacts made on behalf of the county, but there's little specific information in these reports, and virtually no financial details.

In the RCGA report to St. Louis County, it lists how much each municipality gave to the 2010 Regional Economic Development Initiative. 

In Nashville, TN, the Nashville/Davidson County government has audited expnses made by the Chamber of Commerce. The merged government has the right to do it, and has done so, according to Janet Miller, the Nashville Chamber's Chief Economic Development and Marketing Officer. Miller provided us with a $300,000 contract with the city/county, a final report to showing it had fullfilled the contract. Then, surprisingly, she was willing to show me how the Nashville Chamber spent money on a recent trip to New York.

Mr. Fleming and the RCGA not only failed to meet our request for similar records, but months ago went so far as to call me "hostile" because I wanted to see records that no other reporter had ever requested. We didn't get the records. Instead, after repeated unsuccessful attempts to interview Fleming, we found him hiding behind a stack of milk crates in a service hallway at a local hotel. Eventually, Fleming agreed to sit for two on-camera interviews, but the RCGA has never been as transparent as the Nashville Chamber.

I don't expect Mr. Fleming to risk a business deal so I can get more information. I don't expect St. Louis County, or any other municipality, to demand monthly expense reports for every penny of public money spent by the RCGA. However, I do expect Fleming to stop acting like I'm the enemy, and I would hope that ocassionally St. Louis County (by far the biggest government contributor to the RCGA) would ask tougher questions and insist on seeing some more details on how taxpayer's money is being spent at our regional chamber.   

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