Another Fenn Center controversy

ST. LUCIE COUNTY — Havert L. Fenn Center Coordinator Anthony Allen said he was instructed by the former Parks, Recreation and Facilities director to give Mount Bethel Baptist Church of Fort Pierce a $3,789 discount for use of the center each month because County Administrator Faye Outlaw attended the church.

Allen said he thinks Outlaw might have given former Parks, Recreation and Facilities Director Debra Brisson the instruction to give the church the discount.

Outlaw said she was not involved in the church's rental rate and called Allen's allegations "malicious" and "false."

The accusations are the latest uncovered in a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation following the controversial May 28 wedding reception at the Fenn Center for St. Lucie County Clerk of the Circuit Court Joe Smith and Assistant County Attorney Heather Smith.

County records show Allen prepared an $8,289 estimate last year for Mount Bethel Baptist Church to rent the Fenn Center for five days a week each month. On June 7, 2010, that price was reduced to $4,500. The rental price included the use of the gymnasium from 8 a.m. to noon on Sundays and the use of several rooms for five days each week during morning and evening hours.

The County Commission approved a lease agreement between Mount Bethel and the county in July 2010 and renewed it in August of this year for a monthly rental fee of $4,841 or $58,092 a year, county records show. However, receipts show the church has been paying $4,500 a month. Under the initial $8,289 price quote, the church would have paid $99,468 a year.

The church is renting the Fenn Center while it builds a new church on Okeechobee Road.

Allen said he and his assistant, Marsha Hiott, put the initial $8,289 estimate together based on the rates to rent the Fenn Center listed on the county's website. He said Brisson told him to lower the price.

"Ms. Brisson informed us that Faye was a member of that church and that we should work with the church to lower the price," he said. "I came down to $6,700, and I couldn't get any lower. I refused to reduce it, and then Debbie got involved again and said we should drop it to $4,500. Did she actually tell me that Faye told her to do it? I can't remember.

"I'm guessing either Faye was behind it or Debbie wanted to kiss Faye's (buttocks) to do that, or Faye was instructing her to get it done," Allen said. "But I do know when we got to a roadblock, (Brisson) came back the next day to do it for $4,500 so she must have got instructions from somebody." Brisson couldn't be reached for comment.

Brisson resigned Oct. 12 amid allegations she misused $30,000 of taxpayer money on the Smiths' wedding reception at the Fenn Center. An audit conducted by Berger, Toombs, Elam, Gaines & Frank of Fort Pierce found the county spent $14,832 on the Smith wedding reception and not $30,000. Outlaw turned the investigation over to the State Attorney's Office.

Outlaw said she joined Mount Bethel Baptist Church in 2008 and had spotty attendance because she worked on Sundays. She said her attendance completely lapsed in early 2010, and in early 2011 she changed her membership to another church.

"I've always carried out the job of county administrator in an above-board manner and have never used my influence to cut deals for any entity," Outlaw wrote in an email to Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. "Mount Bethel is my former church and during my membership there, I never served in a leadership capacity or had a financial interest in the church.

"There was no deal fixing directed by me nor was I involved in any way, shape or form in the rent rate for Mount Bethel. Mr. Allen needs to immediately produce proof to back up his malicious, false allegations. His allegations are 100 percent false and are not going to make me guilty of something I absolutely did not do."

Outlaw said she first heard about the allegations in a meeting earlier this month set up by Allen's Stuart attorney Joe Gufford with her and County Attorney Dan McIntyre.

"Mr. Allen is four levels removed from me and as a matter of course, I don't interface with him," she wrote. "Given the chain of command in the department, Mr. Allen reports to the division manager who reports to the department director who reports to the assistant county administrator who reports to the county administrator."

County receipts show Mount Bethel Baptist Church has rented the Fenn Center for $4,500 a month since at least August 2010.

Vernon Shazier, pastor of Mount Bethel Baptist Church, said before booking the Fenn Center, he looked to rent space in shopping centers, other churches and at Indian River State College. He said the Fenn Center's rates were "ridiculously high" compared to the other facilities he looked at. However, he said he chose the Fenn Center because it was in the best location and it provided an opportunity to help the county because officials were threatening to close parks and other facilities.

"When you

look at the economic situation, I thought it would be a good opportunity to help in that way," Shazier said. "I've encouraged other churches and ministries to utilize the facility. I've got on the radio and talked about it. I've encouraged pastors to use it. The things I was hearing was we're shutting down parks and facilities. That's one of the reasons we were going there."

Shazier said Outlaw did not tell him to rent the facility and had nothing to do with negotiating the price. He also said Outlaw never told him why she was leaving the church.

"This is really disheartening for me to hear this," he said. "I did all the negotiating with Anthony. He did give me an initial price (of $8,289). What we are paying is fair. What we were initially proposed was to the extreme."

Shazier said the only time he met with Brisson was to finalize the rental agreement. He said Brisson told him the price would have to be approved by the County Commission.

County Commission Chairman Chris Craft said he didn't think Outlaw had anything to do with Mount Bethel getting a reduced rate.

"I have all the confidence in the world in Faye," he said. "She would not direct staff to cut the church or anybody else a deal on something like that. I've had discussions with Ms. Outlaw. She said she no longer goes to that church and hasn't since they started using the Fenn Center."

Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky said he learned of the allegation this month when Allen requested to meet with him.

"The issue here that I continue to see is we have a lack of policy in place to deal with the negotiation process of the facility," Dzadovsky said. "I don't know if any special deal was made. I assure you that any religious group or any church that's out there is still struggling as all nonprofits are and for them to negotiate the best deal for their operation would be in their best interest. I would not hold that against the church for trying to get the best deal possible."

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