From the Chagrin Valley Times
|Budget officials call out Geauga Park District for lying to publicDuring annual tax budget hearings, Geauga County Auditor Chuck Walder, County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, and County Treasurer Chris Hitchcock rebuked the Geauga Park District – the only Geauga County entity that did not have its budget approved during this week’s budget hearings – for lying to the public and for demonstrating a lack of transparency.www.chagrinvalleytoday.com|
Chagrin Valley Times
August 18, 2022
During annual tax budget hearings, Geauga County Auditor Chuck Walder, County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, and County Treasurer Chris Hitchcock rebuked the Geauga Park District – the only Geauga County entity that did not have its budget approved during this week’s budget hearings – for lying to the public and for demonstrating a lack of transparency.
Mr. Walder and Mr. Flaiz took the Park District Board of Commissioners to task for disallowing public comment at board meetings and for lying to the public about the effects of the Budget Commission’s decision last year to reduce tax collections and return $1.9 million to taxpayers.
“That was supposedly such a fatal blow that you said you’d have to close parks,” Mr. Flaiz said, “and in the past year, you haven’t closed any parks, you actually opened a new one. You guys lied.”
Also at issue was the Park Board’s supposed “squirreling away” of $1.3 million into a reserve fund that was illegally set up, said Mr. Flaiz.
“We took away $1.9 million which was going to supposedly cripple your operations and your mission,” Mr. Flaiz added, “but you still have enough money in your budget that you submitted now to squirrel away $1.3 million into a land acquisition fund?”
Mr. Walder chimed in to ask, “So, in the year that your taxes were reduced by $1.9 million, you opened a $1.3 million reserve fund with an unknown cap.”
Park Board Director of Finance Jennifer Pae pointed out that the $1.3 million reserve fund came from non-taxed money, while the Budget Commission reduced the Park District’s collection from taxpayers by $1.9 million.
“This was one-time money as it deals with wetland mitigation,” Ms. Pae said. “The purpose of the land acquisition fund was because it deals with the land. That money is different. It does not supplement the tax revenue. It enhances the parks.”
Mr. Walder replied that the source of the money did not matter.
“Money is money,” Mr. Walder said. “Whatever money comes into an entity, whether it comes from taxes, grants, donations, or wetland mitigations, all is tested through need. Need is a requirement that we all have to match. The revenue, once it hits the depository, becomes subject to need.”
John Slagter, attorney for the Park District, said he thought the park board was “getting grilled” by Mr. Walder, Mr. Flaiz, and Treasurer Chris Hitchock.
“If you want an explanation of why we didn’t close a park,” Mr. Slagter said, “we do operate this for our purpose, which is to operate the parks and protect the land and natural resources, all for the benefit of Geauga County. We eventually need to get past this so we can try to benefit the community and the taxpayers.”
The five-member Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners is appointed by Common Pleas Judge Timothy Grendell and has fallen under the sharp rebuke of Mr. Walder many times in the past, namely for a purported lack of transparency.
Mr. Slagter added that he thought the discussion had “political ugliness” to it.
“While you’re posing for holy pictures, I and (the Budget Commission) have been accused for the last six months of shutting down parks, taking away your healthcare, causing you to close the parks – that’s all been documented in the public eye,” Mr. Walder said. “So you’ll have to forgive us if we’re not a little sensitive to being thrown under the bus while you come and act innocent.”
Mr. Walder went on to say that he thought the problem stemmed from the park board’s lack of openness and accountability to anyone, including the public.
“The public is frustrated with the park board because the only time questions can get asked is at this meeting once a year,” Mr. Walder said.
Mr. Slagter replied that the park board has meetings “all the time.”
“You don’t allow public comment,” returned Mr. Flaiz and Mr. Walder.
Mr. Slagter said that the park board is not legally obligated to allow public comment.
Mr. Walder agreed that was their right.
“Then don’t complain when you get barraged with questions once a year,” Mr. Walder said.
“The one time a year that you have to answer questions and you’re held accountable – because you’re totally unaccountable – this is the reaction we get,” Mr. Flaiz said. “I think that tells the public exactly what they need to know about how transparent and forthcoming you are with their money.”
Mr. Flaiz told the park board that they do not have their house in order, yet they “came to us and want us to clean up the house.”
“You’re not going to like the way we clean up the house, John,” said Mr. Hitchcock. “You’ve identified a reserve fund that was not lawfully constituted. You didn’t even comply with the law. You’ve identified $1.3 million you can set aside. That $1.9 million is going to be returned to your budget in 2023. That indicates to me there’s $1.3 million that’s available to be given back to the taxpayers in 2023.”
Mr. Hitchcock said he saw “no other resolution to this matter” than giving the $1.3 million back to the taxpayers.
“The fact that your numbers don’t balance year to year – that’s embarrassing to you and your operation,” Mr. Hitchcock said.
Earlier, a discussion took place about discrepancies between the budget submitted by the park district last year and this year. A $6,290 discrepancy regarding the 2020 general fund real estate tax statement became the focal point of this discussion, as Mr. Walder pointed out they were misreporting the amount of funds received from the auditor’s office.
“Auditing and accounting is all about accuracy,” Mr. Walder told the Times. “My job as auditor is to test numbers and factor that into my evaluation of whether your numbers represent what you’re doing.”
Mr. Walder explained that discrepancies like this call into question the quality of those numbers. He said he could not endorse a changed statement without explanation, adding that “the public has a right to know what the real number is, and right now, no one can tell what number is right.”
“To Ms. Pae’s point that it’s only $6,900,” Mr. Hitchcock said, “we all work very hard to balance to the penny every day. $6,900 is $6,900 I took from taxpayers. You’re saying it’s inconsequential? It’s not, because every person here that lives in the county pays taxes, and those that don’t are pursued and end up paying interest and penalties. To somebody, $6,900 is a lot of money. Otherwise, they get foreclosed on and lose their home all for taxes – or all for the Geauga Park District.”
Mr. Hitchcock then directed his comments to Park Board Executive Director John Oros.
“This is not easy stuff, John, but our job is to represent all 95,000 taxpayers, and the fact that you continue to not allow public comment at your meetings is wrong, and you know that,” Mr. Hitchcock said.
“Chris, you do realize that it’s a team at Geauga Park District,” Mr. Oros said. “I appreciate you addressing me, but in no way am I personally responsible for what you’re communicating.”
“John, you’re the pointy end of the spear,” said Mr. Hitchcock. “Everyone works for you. If you were to come out and say, ‘From now on, our meetings are going to be open and we will offer time for comment–’”
“That’s not true,” interjected Mr. Oros. “I work for the board of the park district.”
“And if you tell them ‘This is what we need to do,’ they’ll say, ‘You’re right,’ because you are,” Mr. Hitchcock said. “You need to lead.”
Mr. Hitchcock wanted to reduce the park district’s budget, while Mr. Walder and Mr. Flaiz favored tabling the matter until the end of the month.
Out of the 32 Geauga County entities reviewed by the budget commission, the park district was the only one that did not have its budget approved.