The probate court-approved Russell Township Park District intends to purchase approximately 52 acres of Modroo Farm.
Yet, the park district has not budgeted any money for land acquisition in either 2016 or 2017, according to the proposed tax budget submitted to the Geauga County Budget Commission on July 15.
That is troubling to commission members Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz and county Treasurer Chris Hitchcock.
On Aug. 23, park commissioner Charlie Butters attended a public hearing with the budget commission to review the park district’s proposed 2017 tax budget, which reflected a beginning balance in the park district’s land purchase fund of $1,335,185.94.
“You’ve asked us to certify revenue in the amount of $152,080. We will certify that amount,” Deputy Auditor-Fiscal Beverly Sustar told Butters. “Estimated expenses are $0, which would leave you with an ending balance in December of 2017 of $1,487,265.94. The budget does not indicate any anticipated land purchase for 2016 or 2017.”
The $152,080 of revenue is from the park district’s 1-mill levy that expires Dec. 31. The final year of collection is 2017.
“I read in the paper that you guys are going to buy Modroo Farm, but then you don’t budget an anticipated land purchase for ’16 or ’17,” Flaiz told Butters.
“We’re in negotiations in conjunction with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy,” Butters said, adding they “hoped to get something done.” “You think you’re probably going to buy that property?” asked Flaiz. “It’s probably 50/50 at this point,” Butters answered. “It depends on how good things go with the negotiations with the land conservancy.”
He also said the park district has received information on other pieces of property that would be “great for a park,” identifying a 17-acre parcel and two 10-acres parcels on Fairmount Road. “We want to finish up everything with the Modroo Farm discussions before we go after something else,” said Butters.
Hitchcock asked Butters if there really was a 50 percent chance the board would purchase the Modroo property. “Who knows,” Butters said. “We’re really trying hard and we really hope to get that done. Developments in the township change weekly. Now there might be a competitive park district that would be going after that land instead of us. Who knows what’s going to happen.”
Asked Flaiz, “But your intention is for it to happen or isn’t it?” “Our intention is for it to happen,” said Butters.
“So if you intend to buy something, wouldn’t you budget for it?” Flaiz said.
“At this point, we don’t know what our participation amount would be in the purchase,” explained Butters, admitting, however, the park board has a rough idea of the amount. “But we want to keep that close the vest based on our negotiations and what we’re doing with the land conservancy,” he said.
Hitchcock asked Butters if the board had passed any resolution appropriating money for land acquisition.
“We just assumed that the land purchase money funds are available to us,” replied Butters. It has to be appropriated before it can be spent, Hitchcock said, before referring Butters to a history of estimated and real spending for the park district.
2011: estimated spending $555,000; actual spending $0.
2012: estimated spending $0; actual spending $0.
2013: estimated spending $750,000; actual spending $0.
2014, estimated spending $900,000; actual spending $0.
2015: estimated spending $537,144; actual spending $0.
“This current year, they (park board) said they were going to spend $1.33 million. I believe your indication is it’s 50/50,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s going to be $0.” He added, “This is taxpayers’ money. This is not your money, other than you being a taxpayer.” Hitchcock said Russell taxpayers have been lied to for five years. “That is wrong. That is terribly wrong,” he said.
Turning toward the general fund side of the park district’s proposed budget, Hitchcock noted Butters estimated a beginning cash balance of $182,000. “It’s actually at $198,000, but that’s OK,” he said. “Last year your expenditures were $9,200. That is 24 years, I think, worth of expenditures. Twenty-four years . . . that’s unconscionable. It sets a record, I believe, in Geauga County for hoarding money.” Said Hitchcock, “This is not a good thing. I will not support a park district or any tax-levy entity that so abuses taxpayers. I will not support you by a motion nor will I support any vote for it. I’m out.”
Flaiz said the prior board had budgeted to spend $145,000 out of the general fund and $1.33 million out of the land purchase fund in 2016. He asked Butters if there was an agreement in place for the park district to purchase Modroo Farm when he was appointed to the board.
“No. It appeared there was a handshake agreement, but nothing in writing that we inherited that said there’s an agreement in place,” Butters said. He added at his second board meeting he was asked to vote to spend that money, but opted instead not to vote to second the motion.
“So, they budget this money to purchase the land and you have $1.4 million that you can only use for land purchases. You vote no, you vote not to purchase it. You don’t budget anything to purchase the land next year, yet you’re telling me it’s your intent to purchase this land,” Flaiz said. “Right,” replied Butters.
Commission members briefly discussed suspending collection of the 1-mill park levy, but Sustar said that would require a second hearing. So, they agreed to table any action on the proposed 2017 budget and suspension of levy collection until 1:30 p.m. Aug. 30.
The park board has scheduled a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 26 to discuss “all matters concerned” with the budget commission hearing process. The meeting will be held at The West Woods visitor center at 9465 Kinsman Road