Jefferson Parish Councilman questions performing arts group’s lease with parish

Questions continue to swirl about finances and operations at the Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Society, and now the Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office is investigating the group’s lease for its Clearview Parkway offices.

Parish Councilman Chris Roberts questioned the status of the group’s lease with the parish Wednesday after noting some irregularities. Roberts also asked whether the parish administration had notified other parish agencies about its decision to suspend payments to the group until an audit of the nonprofit’s finances is completed.

JPAS has been a hot-button issue recently after the parish’s internal auditor found a lack of institutional controls at the agency last year. A preliminary draft of the audit was leaked last week, and it showed issues with how the nonprofit handles credit cards, check requisitions and employee classifications. On Monday, JPAS presented the parish with its responses to those findings, which included new policies and procedures to address many of the issues.

JPAS rents a parish building at 1118 Clearview Parkway for $1 per year under an agreement signed in 1994. However, Roberts said it appears the lease expired in 2004 and was never formally renewed by the parish.

Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee said her office is verifying the status of the lease, along with following up on another of Roberts’ concerns with how money from Jefferson Parish is spent by the group.

Last summer, the council approved $325,000 for the nonprofit after cuts in state funding endangered its operations.

“We’re both investigating the issue with the lease and the budget,” said Foshee, who noted that the lease contains some previsions that raise red flags. “We would not execute this lease today.”

Parish President John Young added that he’s requested a review of all of the parish’s leases to make sure there aren’t issues with them. However, he continued to decline to discuss the preliminary audit findings, noting that it was premature to discuss them until the audit process was completed.

“I’m not commenting on the report, because the report isn’t complete,” Young said.

Roberts stressed that no one in the parish doubts the service JPAS provides with its programs but said it’s seemed that in recent years the agency has expanded its operations outside of Jefferson Parish, particularly in St. Tammany Parish. He added that if Jefferson Parish residents are footing the bill for the group, then the parish should reap the benefits.

“We also have to be conscious of the fact that it appears as though the performing arts society has expanded its roots quite a bit,” Roberts said.

But Dennis Assaf, JPAS director, said that prior to the emergency payment, Jefferson Parish only gave the nonprofit $100,000 annually, which is less than 5 percent of its $2.2 million budget. The primary funding source for JPAS is the state, and Assaf says the group has a responsibility to put on shows throughout the state to justify that funding.

“I think they are being disingenuous for criticizing us for going to other parishes with state money,” Assaf said. “We feel that it’s better stewards of state money to spread that money around the state as much as possible.”

Assaf also provided a copy of the signed lease document with Jefferson Parish from 2004, which extends the group’s lease for 10 years. He noted that when JPAS took over the Clearview Parkway property, it was in disrepair and had to be brought up to its current shape.

Assaf said the delay in releasing the funding the council approved for the group has forced the nonprofit to secure a $100,000 line of credit to keep operations going. When that money runs out, things could get dicey, he said.

“When that money runs out, we’re going to be in deep doo-doo,” Assaf said.

Roberts asked Young for an estimate on how long he planned to withhold funding, expressing concern that the council would be blamed for problems at the nonprofit.

“I don’t want the finger being pointed at us to say we’re the ones that left them in dire straits,” Roberts said.

Young decided to withhold payments to JPAS after Roberts expressed concern about the preliminary audit findings. The parish has never paid the group any of the money allocated, Young said.

He told Roberts that the parish will continue to withold funding until the entire audit process is completed.

After JPAS’ responses to the audit are reviewed, a final audit will be prepared and presented to the parish’s Ethics and Governmental Compliance Committee. That group will then make a recommendation to the entire council, Young said.

Assaf said that after this process he plans to keep any funds received from Jefferson Parish in a separate account so that their use can be easily tracked. That money will only be used for utilities and insurance at the group’s Westwego and Metairie offices.

“The next time they send the auditor in here, he’ll be done in five minutes,” Assaf quipped.