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LR agency will tigthen cost controls

Changes in works for visitors bureau

By C.S. Murphy

This article was originally published January 23, 2007 at 5:35 p.m. Updated December 20, 2006 at 6:00 a.m.

Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau leaders say they're working to "create a culture of compliance and a culture of accountability" in light of oversights revealed recently.

The Advertising and Promotion Commission, which oversees the bureau, will meet today at 11:30 a.m. in the bureau's offices at Robinson Center.

Several measures are on the agenda. They include:

The bureau plans to begin using Little Rock's recently purchased procurement com- puter software. The bureau will be added as a "sanctioned user" of the city's Lawson Procurement software by mid-2007, bureau chief executive Dan O'Byrne said.

Over time, O'Byrne said, the bureau's purchasing practices will mirror the city's.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's recent review of bureau documents revealed that the bureau doesn't always follow local bid laws or its own policy governing purchases for amounts below the bid law threshold of $25,000. And, when these expenditures have required votes of the commission, they typically have involved little or no public discussion.

The agency violated state law by spending more than half a million dollars on marketing projects last year without seeking competitive bids, prompting the city attorney to order a review of the bureau's purchasing practices.

That review is still under way.

The commission is expected to approve allowing the Little Rock human resources department to produce a new policies and procedures manual for the bureau and the agency's first administrative policy manual.

The bureau has no method for tracking how much money sales executives spend to draw a convention to Little Rock. The office has no regulations governing travel, personal expense reimbursements, computer use, or alcohol purchase and consumption by employees.

The commission is also expected to consider renewing a lease for office space at the Pyramid Park Office Building in west Little Rock.

Commissioner Blair Allen's family owns the building and has collected $3,090 a month since September 2005 for extra office space that the bureau rents.

The bureau entered into the lease agreement without following local bid laws or its own policy governing purchases for amounts below the bid law threshold of $25,000.

Allen did disclose to the commission that his family owns the building and abstained from voting.

City Manager Bruce Moore said he and Mayor-elect Mark Stodola met during the weekend to discuss improving accountability at the bureau and other city agencies.

"This is definitely on the top of everybody's agenda," Moore said.

Moore said he's asked city Finance Director Bob Biles to review the bureau's audit findings from recent years and determine how the agency is addressing problems.

Biles said the city is now implementing a $2.6 million procurement system that may help streamline the bureau's purchasing practices.

"It's an option," he said. "When we signed the contract with Lawson, one of the things we negotiated was for any of the component agencies of the city to also use the software. What we're hoping to get out of it is more rapid acknowledgment of expenditures. Right now we have to wait for an invoice before it's on the books."

Moore and other city leaders may have to split time today between the commission meeting and an annual luncheon with state legislators planned for the same time.

As part of recent compliance reviews, bureau officials discovered the accounting department miscalculated 2005 tax withholdings, leading former CEO Barry Travis to shortchange the Internal Revenue Service $104 in income taxes on a car given to him as a retirement gift.

"The correct 2005 car allowance amount has been included on an amended 2005 W2C Form," O'Byrne wrote in an internal memo released late last week.

In June 2005, Travis signed over a bureau-owned 1996 Suburban that he drove to get a $1,500 trade-in on a new Malibu registered in Travis' name. Last month, he paid the bureau back the $1,500.

The miscalculation was discovered at that time, O'Byrne said.

The $25,500 car was purchased outside normal bid procedures and was paid for through a combination of the trade-in, revenue from the 2 percent hotel and restaurant tax, and contributions from donors that included firms that do business with the Convention and Visitors Bureau or benefit from its tax-supported activities.

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