News

Preston Calls Geauga Park Administration to Task over Budget ‘Fiasco’

From the Geauga County Maple Leaf


AUGUST 26, 2021 BY 

ANN WISHART 


Hot on the heels of the Geauga County Budget Commission slicing and dicing Geauga Park District’s 2022 budget Aug. 16, park board member Pat Preston fired out his concerns Aug. 20.

During the special meeting on the district’s appropriation budget, Preston said there are so many questions about the budget submitted to the three-person budget commission, the park board needs to hire a public accounting firm to sort it out.

“I don’t have any confidence now that the stuff I am agreeing to is the right stuff to agree to,” he said after district treasurer Mike Frederick’s brief presentation of the revised budget.

In addition, Preston said the district needs better legal representation before making financial decisions.

The budget commission was clear about changes the district needs to make in their budgeting process.

Specifically, the district appropriated $3.5 million for “special projects” in 2022. The budget commission wants an explicit accounting of those special projects, said Preston, owner of Preston Superstore car dealership in Burton Village.

“In my business, (a budget) has to be very specific as to appropriations,” he said.

Reports of the Aug. 16 hearing with the budget commission brought a number of issues to his attention.

“We got a big wake up call,” Preston said, noting the board has to answer to the elected officials.

“The players are the players,” he said. “We are playing on their playground and we have to do a much better job than what we are doing.”

Preston said Geauga County Auditor Chuck Walder wants the park board to use something other than an Excel spreadsheet to create its budget.

Most of the tax-funded entities that come before the budget commission annually use UAN, the Uniform Accounting Network financial software from the Ohio Auditor of State for bookkeeping purposes.

“(Walder) claims he’s told you for years to use (UAN). Why haven’t we done this?” Preston said, adding it looks like multiple people participated in the spreadsheet.

“Who put it together?” he asked.

“We all put it together,” Frederick replied.

He presented the budget briefly before Preston’s comments, pointing with a laser to what he said was the essential problem: there was no column for the 2019 actual budget in the four-page spreadsheet and there were two columns for 2021 – that year’s actual budget and amended budget. Frederick said corrections were made.

“We revised that, essentially moving the columns over,” he said.

Too many participants make a budgeting process more susceptible to error, Preston said, adding a spreadsheet includes numbers that are manually input.

“It doesn’t allow the computer to do full functionality. (A different program) would most likely have caught this error,” Preston said.
During his presentation, Frederick said the budget committee focused on “ticky tacky things” in special accounts that were not material to the presentation of the “flexible” budget.

He also said the budget commission’s comments were embarrassing and their language was demeaning.

“We didn’t get due process. We should have the right to resubmit,” Frederick said. “The taxpayers approve the levies. For a budget commission to deny (residents’) vote and where (they) want (their) money to go is wrong. We shouldn’t have to put up with that.”

GPD Executive Director John Oros said another hearing will not be held.

“We have been denied coming back Aug. 27,” he said.

Walder, contacted after the meeting, said there is no need for another budget commission hearing because the park district budget was accepted Aug. 16.

“Our resolution was to suspend $1.9 million in (property) tax collection. There was no need to resubmit,” he said.

They made changes in the balances and corrected errors, Walder said.

Because the park board budget did not account for the proposed use of $1.9 million, the budget commission did not include it in their resolution, he said.

Oros objected at the Aug. 20 meeting to a comment one of the budget commission members made in which he accused the district of “conjuring up” a need for the unspecified special projects.

“We did not conjure up a need. We defined the need,” he said, referring to unspecified work being planned for at least three parks. “Perhaps the members of the budget commission should visit those parks.”

One reason it appears the district has a surplus of funds is generous donations, Oros said.

“We were blessed to receive $2.7 million in unexpected revenue from anonymous donors,” he said. “We probably won’t get those donations next year.”

The district shared that information with the budget commission after the commission proposed withholding $1.9 million in tax collections, Oro said.

Preston said he is concerned about the reputation of the district in light of the budget review.

“We are losing the public relations battle, severely. I am not happy at all with what transpired,” he said.

Preston said in an Aug. 21 phone call none of the board members have experience in these matters.

“The board is trying very hard to understand these things. We’ve got to beef up what we are doing,” he said. “We’re not supposed to just agree to everything.”

Just before the commission went into executive session last Friday to consult with Tucker Ellis LLP attorneys John Slagter and Jon Oebker at 8:48 a.m., Preston said, “We have a lot of work to do. We have to get our act together. I feel like I’m failing in this job. I don’t like that feeling.”

When the board came out of executive session more than 30 minutes later, board members voted unanimously to authorize the lawyers to hire an outside accounting firm. No mention of cost was made.

Oros announced before the meeting was adjourned that media had been informed about the meeting and the Sunshine Law had been satisfied.

The Geauga County Maple Leaf did not receive a notice of the meeting from the park district. Barbara Zaas Partington from Protect Geauga Parks notified the paper and provided a copy of the original budget submitted by the park district.

Sheryl Hattridge, board secretary, told visitors just prior to the meeting the notice was sent, but a problem with the email connection may have caused a failure. She passed out copies of the amended budget.

After the park board meeting, Walder defended the budget commission’s action.

“The budget commission corrected the errors in the park district’s budget submission and, therefore, could approve it for 2022. The suspension of the district’s unaccounted-for $1.9 million was due to the district’s failure to provide a need for that levy revenue in their submission,” he wrote in a text.

I don’t have any confidence now that the stuff I am agreeing to is the right stuff to agree to. – Pat Preston

We didn’t get due process. We should have the right to resubmit. – Mike Frederick

Categories: News

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