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Park operator gets 'B' from city auditors

On a scorching day late last summer, folks who gathered outside the clubhouse at the city-owned South Park Golf Course were enjoying cold bottled beer and wine coolers.

The group included a seasonal employee of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit group that operates city parks. Undercover auditors said they spotted him drinking on the job as he rang in golfers. Another employee also was drinking, but auditors acknowledged that he may have been off the clock at the time.

A new audit released Wednesday also listed 10 pieces of equipment -- or about6 percent of the city's overall parks inventory -- as missing. The items include a tractor, loader, snowblower and lawnmower.

In addition, the audit pointed to the need for tighter controls on collecting golf fees, find that procedures appeared to be "lax" at certain times.

Still, Darryl McPherson, Buffalo's chief auditor, said the review of parks equipment and operations at the city's three golf courses found that the Conservancy was doing far more things right than wrong. McPherson said the courses were in excellent condition and most procedures were being followed properly. If he were to assign an overall grade to operations, he said it would be a "B."

"We found that Olmsted is generally running a good operation," McPherson said. "In those areas where we have concerns, they've promised to be ever vigilant."

Interim Comptroller Darby R. Fishkin concurred, adding that the Conservancy has been receptive to recommendations made in the audit.

"They have the necessary policies in place," Fishkin said. "The issue becomes making sure that all the controls are followed."

Auditors said they witnessed instances in which golfers were not asked to prove residency before receiving the lower rate for city dwellers. On some occasions, people began golfing without paying fees. Auditors acknowledged that workers might have recognized the golfers as holders of season passes.

Thomas Herrera-Mishler, Conservancy president and CEO, said workers will be reminded to follow collection procedures.

"We care deeply about revenues because there aren't enough of them," he said.

Herrera-Mishler added that the Conservancy will take swift action if it discovers that some employees are not charging appropriate fees, noting that this would be considered theft.

As for employees drinking on the job, Herrera-Mishler said the Conservancy already has a strict prohibition. He said the rule will be emphasized as the group hires new seasonal workers to run golf courses in Delaware, Cazenovia and South Park this summer.

City Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said officials are reviewing the audit.

The city has launched an investigation into the missing equipment, said Andrew R. Rabb, the deputy public works commissioner who oversees parks.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com