By Meg Tully
The Maryland Department of Aging spent nearly $220,000 in taxpayer dollars last year to host a three-day senior expo and conference at National Harbor that private sponsors and attendees were supposed to pay for, according to an audit.
The internal report by the Department of Budget and Management cited the event for “numerous control issues” and “insufficient oversight of the project.”
It took place at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center, and the four diamond resort was picked without competitive bidding -- a choice the audit said resulted in higher costs because it is one of the most expensive venues in the area.
Money for the expo had not been appropriated in the Department of Aging’s budget.
In addition to conference costs, the audit also found that the department paid another $40,000 to bus seniors to the event, and it also paid for local aging offices staff in neighboring counties to attend and stay overnight.
The event, 2012 Innovations in Aging Exposition and Conference, was the Department of Aging’s first attempt at hosting a large-scale expo, spokeswoman Donna Smith stated in an e-mail.
The audit concentrated on mistakes that were made by the Department of Aging such as only considering one venue, not finding partner organizations with appropriate experience, waiving or reducing fees that were supposed to help cover event costs, and not keeping detailed financial records.
Since the audit was completed Jan. 14, 2013, the Department of Aging followed its advice and recovered nearly $16,000 that had been overpaid to the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, which helped implement the event.
“Our vision for Innovations in Aging was to produce a regional first class expo and conference that would become a signature event for the Maryland Department of Aging,” wrote Secretary Gloria Lawlah in response to the audit. “…We knew there would be many challenges, but we were confident that we would be able to engage our partners and make this a successful event.”
However, the department has no plans to hold the event again, Smith said.
The event was attended by about 5,000 people and more than 350 professionals in the senior care industry. In contrast, Baltimore County’s Baby Boomer/Senior Expo 2013 in October was attended by 11,500 people and raised more than $100,000 for the Seniors in Need Fund.
Lack of bidding for hotel
One concern of auditors was the department’s choice to hold the conference at the Gaylord, without soliciting bids from other hotels in the region. Additionally, the contract with the resort required a 90% occupancy of a block of hotel rooms at the rate of $224 a night. Without those rooms, the contract called for charges for meeting rooms that would otherwise be provided free of charge, as well as liquidated damages for the difference between the 90% benchmark and the number of rooms booked.
Smith said that it was selected early on because it was large enough to hold a large educational conference, job fair and public exposition simultaneously.
The audit also raised questions about some of the expenses associated with the expo.
According to the a5 guest rooms for overnight accommodations for staff supporting event acudit, the Department of Aging spent $10,116 for 2tivities – or about $404 per room. The department also issued grants to local offices on aging, which included $20,301 for their staff to pay for expo registration, hotel and parking expenses.
Howard and Montgomery counties were among those which received $1,300 for overnight accommodations, although they are neighboring counties to Prince George’s, the audit stated.
The audit also questioned the expo’s evening reception, Denim & Diamonds, which featured exhibits, live entertainment, special guest speakers and food, music and dancing for professional attendees. The catering cost $70 per person, and there were about 250 attendees. The state also paid for audio equipment and a band and spent a total of $18,372 on the reception.
The audit states that it is common to have an evening reception for professional attendees that pay registration fees. In this case, the registration fee was $125 and raised $24,175.
“However, given that in the preceding weeks before the Expo's opening MDOA had committed almost $150,000 to cover the event's operating deficit, a prudent question is whether it was in the best interest of the taxpayer for this reception to be held at all?"
Problems with partners
The expo was intended to be conducted by a consortium of entities interested in aging issues in the Maryland, Washington D.C. and Virginia area, according to Smith.
The Department of Aging selected the Alliance of Southern Prince George’s Communities Inc. to administer the expo. But, according to the audit, “the Alliance later proved to have insufficient resources and experience necessary to fulfill an agreement with [the Department of Aging].”
The department turned to the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region to take over implementation. Another partner that was supposed to find employers willing to pay for booths at the job fair quit before delivering a single paying booth, leaving the Department of Aging scrambling to find employers for the job fair, the audit found.
According to auditors, the Department of Aging should limit itself to volunteer assistance and find an organization to host the event in the future.
“The hosting organization should have a reputation and demonstrated experience in arranging and managing conferences as well as successfully recruiting sponsors to fund the event,” the audit states. “The hosting organization should be responsible for the overall project, its deliverables, and finances.”
Revenue fell short
Despite original plans that neither the Department of Aging nor its non-profit partners would underwrite the event, the department ended up giving nearly $150,000 to the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region for expo expenses, and spent another $70,000 directly to pay for expenses that weren’t covered by revenue coming in, the audit found.
Revenue problems included:
- The expo had fewer sponsors than expected, with only six organizations contributing and at donation rates less than expected.
- Booth rental fees were discounted or waived in order to get job fair booths after the contractor quit.
- Registration fee payments weren’t required at time of registration and ended up being only $24,175 – about $20,000 less than expected.
Board of Public Works approval
A major recommendation of the audit was for the Department of Aging to consider asking the Board of Public Works for retroactive approval of its $150,000 grant to Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.
The grant did not follow the requirements in state law, the audit found.
On Aug. 21, the Board of Public Works approved a request from the Department of Aging to retroactively approve $134,050 to the foundation. That amount was lower than the grant because the foundation paid back nearly $16,000 that had not been spent.
In Board of Public Works documents, it said the contract with the community foundation did not follow state procurement law. However, the law provides for retroactive approval when the contractor acts in good faith and did not contribute to violations of procurement law. In this case, the Department of Aging said that the contractor had acted in good faith.
The Board of Public Works -- the governor, state treasurer and comptroller -- approved the item without discussion.