by Tyler Mangrum
– The Capitol Hill Times –
The Friends of the Conservatory, a non-profit group responsible for assisting the Seattle Parks Department in the management of the Volunteer Park Conservatory, recently experienced a bump in the road to restoring the 100-year-old Capitol Hill institution due to an alleged $66,000 embezzlement by the organization’s former treasurer, Daniel Celler.
The embezzlement was discovered following a breakdown in communication with Celler, who had become increasingly erratic in his bookkeeping as well as difficult to contact.
“We had a finance committee that came together last year to physically come up with oversight for [Celler], who had been acting increasingly unilaterally,” said Anthonio Pettit, Executive Director for FOC. “Communication with him had become so erratic that the new treasurer, who had been on the committee, commanded that we see some sort of profit/loss statement for last year, at which point we found that there was a $50,000 loss statement. That nailed in that there was a problem that was bigger than we were aware of.”
Following the discovery, a forensic accountant was hired from Apex Law Group, and it was found that Celler had made a series of withdrawals over the period of many months into three separate bank accounts for the stated purpose of “investment.”
On July 2, Celler was served with a civil lawsuit. At the time of writing, the 20-day period in which Celler must respond before a judge may mean a default judgment has expired, but the judge responsible for the decision has yet to make a ruling.
According to Pettit, the damage caused by the embezzlement has helped create a $25,000 budget deficit for the FOC.
Additionally, the installment of the conservatory’s new payment machines, which require visitors to pay a new $4 entry fee, is believed to be responsible for a dip in the number of visitors. As the FOC remains separate from the conservatory itself, and therefore does not benefit from the new fee, the FOC instead sees proceeds from the gift shop that help supplement the FOC’s annual budget.
“We’ve been hit hard this year, and there have been several factors that have gone into the state that the FOC is in now,” Pettit said. “It certainly hasn’t helped that we’ve lost the revenue that we would’ve taken from the gift shop sales. If someone comes in and they see a line at the gift shop of people who are buying passes, they may put down something that they otherwise would’ve bought.”
Despite the decrease in patrons to the conservatory since the institution of the pay machines, Pettit said that the Parks Department will not be removing the pay machines.
“The decline in sales that we’re seeing is people not wanting to pay at the door and not pay extra, but the conservatory realizes that’s a necessary part of its operation, so it will remain in place,” he said. “We’re actively working with parks to increase revenue as we speak. There will likely be a change to how the [FOC] is administering the program, and some adjustments to the membership levels over the next few months, but it’s still being finalized.”
However, Pettit emphasized that the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department largely anticipated this decline in attendance, and budget projections for the conservatory itself remain in the black. This has in turn helped keep FOC afloat amid the budget crisis, but the current fiscal state of the FOC is less optimistic.
“The city is well on target for its operation goal for the conservatory, so that’s great news,” Pettit said. “The Friends of the Conservatory Gift Shop is taking a lot of the overflow from the ticket machines, and we’re also selling the annual passes and bundling some of those with the membership costs. This all structured off-the-cuff, but we’re seeing that the way we’re cost sharing with [the Parks Department] is not sustainable for the Friends.”
Pettit also stated that in order to continue ongoing repairs and maintenance to the conservatory into the foreseeable future, the FOC has turned to fundraising efforts to cover the $25,000 shortfall. Without it, Pettit says, the conservatory will suffer in the long-term.
“The conservatory is a venerable treasure to our community, but we’re just the non-profit,” he Pettit. “What the conservatory would lose by not having strong Friends program would be a strong voice in the community, as well as the community having a voice at the conservatory… All that we do at the conservatory is integral to the success of the conservatory overall. The conservatory will go on without the Friends, but it will certainly be a lot tougher.
“We have a lot of very big plans for the Conservatory,” Pettit added. “We just need our members to help get us over this hump.”