Legislative audit concludes State Farmers' Market not self-sustaining

Published: Aug. 27, 2015 at 1:38 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 6, 2015 at 3:03 PM EDT
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WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Agriculture has issues with an audit of financial operations at the South Carolina State Farmers' Market that finds the operation cannot support itself.

The Legislative Audit was done at the request of members of the South Carolina General Assembly.

The audit reviewed the market's management of revenues, expenditures and leases by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

"We found issues with the appraisal of the property, the management of the leases, and SCDA's ability to generate revenue at the market," said K. Earle Powell, Director of the Legislative Audit Council. "We found that the market is unable to sustain itself with just the revenue generated from leases, events, and activities at the market."

According to the Audit Council, the SCDA asked for and received $300,000 in state funding in the 2013-2014 fiscal year "to sustain the Farmers' Market." That same $300,000 appropriation was included in the budget for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 fiscal years.

Department of Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers wrote a letter to the Audit Council in response to the report.

"The review...does not present a complete picture of the State Farmers' Market background, purchases and operations and should not be presented to the public as such," reads the letter from Weathers to Powell.

Weathers' letter says "Given the expectations of the public for full transparency, any auditing process must be thorough, accurate, and above reproach and political influence. This review fall short on all of these standards," including "A predisposition toward negative findings of this matter before beginning the audit," "Insufficient fact gathering efforts leading to erroneous conclusions," "An alarming lack of basing working knowledge of business principles that should concern members of the General Assembly and the public," "Not understanding or recognizing the answers to questions already made available to the public..."

Weathers also argues in the letter there were "Questionable interpretation of the scope of work" and "Numerous inconsistencies within the Review itself."

The Department of Agriculture provided WIS with the following statement in response to the report:

"The South Carolina Department of Agriculture appreciates the benefits of valid observations, and as noted in our response, we have already enacted and will continue to enact several of the recommendations contained in this report. Obviously, we don't agree with the characterization made in the report. SCDA shares the belief with the public that transparency and accountability are essential, and that audits are a valuable tool in our system of checks and balances."

The market is a public-private partnership between the Department of Agriculture and private businesses.

The audit says the department should improve oversight of vendors and developers to increase revenue, and charge fees for parking and special events admission.

In 2013, Gov. Nikki Haley said the market should operate from income it generates, not taxpayer money.

In 2008 the South Carolina State Farmers' Market moved from its previous site on Bluff Road across from Williams-Brice Stadium to West Columbia. In 2013, the state spent $7 million to purchase additional land to expand the site, with the plan that rental income from the property would help pay for market operations. 

Click here to read A Review of the Farmers' Market Land Deal, Leases, Revenues and Expenditures released by the Legislative Audit Council and Weathers' letter of response.

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