Something Smells Rotten at Deerfield Beach's Mango Festival

The Mango Festival of Deerfield Beach has a math problem: Its most recent festival, in June 2008, attracted a lot of people. But for some reason, it didn't make a lot of money. And for the city, which has invested more than a million dollars in that festival over the last several years, that should be cause for concern.

"There's nothing that we're hiding," insists the festival's president, Norm Edwards. "Everything is done by the book."

We'll see about that. After the jump, let's take a close look at how the Mango festival handles its money.

The Mango Festival, which enjoys the backing of two long-standing Deerfield Beach politicians -- State Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed and Commissioner Sylvia Poitier -- was canceled in 2009 due to funding cuts, but there are plans to stage the festival again in 2010, when it's due to receive $25,000 worth of city support.

That's a far cry from the generosity of days past. As recently as 2006, when the more beneficent Larry Deetjen was city manager, the festival received some $420,000 in city funding, according to documents that Commissioner Bill Ganz requested.

In 2008 the city authorized the spending of $165,000 toward that year's Mango Festival, which was held for one day (June 16), where in years past it occupied an entire weekend. Still, it's fairly astonishing that -- according to records the festival provided to the city -- it only collected about $18,000 in ticket sales. VIP tickets were $20 and $15. General admission was $10 for adults and $7 for children.

So if the average ticket was about $10 and the festival only collected $18,000 then that means only about 1,800 people attended the festival. Its president, Edwards, told me he didn't know what the attendance was. So I asked vice president Terry Scott. "Only about 3,000," he said, of the attendance.

When I phoned Edwards back and asked him if he was surprised by how little was collected at the ticket gates, he said "No." And he took no issue with the 3,000 figure that Scott gave me.

So I phoned Broward Sheriff's Office Lt. Mark Frise, who helped to organize the department's security effort and who was present at the event, as he was the previous seven festivals. I told him the attendance figure that Scott gave me. "Three thousand?" he asked. "That's absurd."

I recounted this exchange with Edwards. I also told the Mango president that the photos from the 2008 event displayed on the festival's website (and pasted into this blog post), suggest that there was a big crowd, both during the day and the night, far in excess of 3,000.

Edwards insisted I was mistaken, that those photos were from an older, more heavily attended Mango Festival. About 15 minutes after I hung up with him, I recalled that part of our conversation and re-loaded the website. The crowd shots had already been taken down. (I had saved them to my computer the day before.)

In past conversations, I'd asked Edwards and Scott what measures they took to prevent ticket collectors from skimming the gate proceeds and how they guaranteed that the cash collected at the festival was all documented. I was told that police had that responsibility.

"There's a BSO deputy who goes with us to collect everything," Edwards explained. "And then it's documented. After it's itemized, the city sees that sheet."

Again, BSO's Frise said otherwise. His officers monitor Mango organizers, but only to prevent them from being robbed by someone in the crowd. "If anyone from the Mango committee said that BSO is there to monitor the money to make sure that there's no skimming, that is absolutely incorrect," Frise said.

In more recent conversations, Edwards and Scott conceded the point.

I sent an email yesterday to the city's acting director of Parks and Recreation, George Edmunds, asking how the city monitors the handling of money at the Mango Festival. He has not responded. City Manager Mike Mahaney has also failed to respond to emails with the same question.

Edwards and Scott struggled to explain how they can guarantee that their ticket collectors aren't skimming and how they can guarantee that no one else is pocketing proceeds of the event. Ultimately, Scott admitted that it's an honor system.

But theoretically, with all that cash, the organizers could under-report ticket sales and pocket the difference. That's why the disparity between attendance figures is so troubling.

Frise told me, "I've heard estimates of 25,000 (attendance), which might be a little high," but he says it's still much closer than 3,000. If there were 20,000 who paid their way into the festival, then the organizers should have collected approximately $200,000 at the gate, rather than the $18,000 they reported to the city.

The math at the Mango is not the only concern. I've reviewed the organization's tax filings and compared them with the documents it provided to the city. That brings a host of new questions. Among them, it's not clear why the city cut the Mango Festival a check for $36,000 in June 2008. I was to speak with Edwards at 3 today to clear up those questions, but he missed our appointment.

Blogger Chaz Stevens has been hounding the Mango organizers at least since May, when he acted on his legal right to review the tax filings of the nonprofit -- he says Mango never responded to those requests. He, too, had saved photos from the 2008 Mango Festival and he put them in this collage, which is an even more vivid illustration of the event's popularity.

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