Park District board rescinds ‘land acquisition fund’

Chagrin Valley Times

August 25, 2022

by Anastasia Nicholas

A week after members of the Geauga County Budget Commission publicly lambasted a proposed $1.3 million “land acquisition fund” by the Geauga Park District arguing the account was created illegally, the Park District met Wednesday and voted unamiously to rescind the fund proposal.

After their budget was not approved during annual tax budget hearings, the Park District Board of Commissioners, the park board held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss concerns raised last week.

The budget commission – consisting of Geauga County Auditor Chuck Walder, County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, and County Treasurer Chris Hitchcock – questioned whether the park district’s proposed $1.3 million land acquisition fund had been legally set up. According to the park board, the purpose of the fund was “for various projects to acquire land and/or improve on lands to be used for park purposes.”

During last week’s meeting, Mr. Walder said that the park district is a taxing unit, not a taxing authority, and therefore does not have the authority to establish a reserve fund.

The budget commission also wanted to see a cap for the reserve fund.

Park District outside counsel John Slagter said there was no final decision made on the legality of the land acquisition fund, essentially arguing that he was not certain the budget commission was correct in stating it was illegally set up.

Mr. Slagter said that the state auditor identifies park districts as having authority to create these funds, but acknowledged that “just because a state auditor says it doesn’t mean legally you can or can’t.”

Still, despite this “conflicting information,” Mr. Slagter said there was a “legitimate issue” and the “best thing to do” would be to rescind the fund. He added that they could recreate the fund if they find out in the future, perhaps through an attorney general’s opinion, that it is legal.

“It could be a problem” if the budget commission are correct about the illegality of the fund, Mr. Slagter said.

Mr. Walder noted in an interview that, in the section of the Ohio Compliance Supplement that summarizes the requirements for reserve funds, parks are not included.

“I can’t speak to who John Slagter got his information from,” Mr. Walder said.

Included in the resolution that rescinded the land acquisition fund was an addendum authorizing Director of Finance Jennifer Pae to request either an amended or renewed Geauga Park District Official Certificate of Estimated Resources from the budget commission to account for the monies in the rescinded land acquisition fund.

The resolution also states that the park district “acknowledges the concerns” of the budget commission.

Commissioner Pat Preston explained that the fund was created because the park board needed funds readily available to acquire property.

“We couldn’t just run along and buy property from time to time,” said Mr. Preston. “Some property costs next to nothing and some projects could be huge, in the millions of dollars. All we were attempting to do was to try to take our budget and make it clear, so that they could see land development from day to day park activities. Land development is a separate activity. It doesn’t happen every day. It might happen this year; it may not happen next year. We could come along a project like we were asked to come along with Geauga Lake. We thought that was too big of a project, but they want us to do all kinds of development down at Geauga Lake. That would be millions of dollars we would have to spend to make anything happen down there. We look at projects, take some, and turn some down.”

Mr. Preston said the only intent was to “make their budget process clear, not more opaque.”

Board President Howard Bates pointed out that his board should have waited for a legal opinion before creating that fund.

“The budget commission brought up the point that that might not be legal for us to do what we did,” Mr. Bates said. “Even though Toledo and some of these other parks in the past have done that doesn’t make it legal.”

The budget commission also questioned the “reasonableness” of the fund.

Executive Director John Oros provided the park district’s six-year capital improvement plan, showing the need for the land acquisition fund.

The plan outlines various projects from 2023 to 2028 totaling $14 million. Each year varies from four to seven projects totaling an average of $2.3 million. Most projects are described as “improvements” to park trails, asphalt, or various structures like bridges and restrooms. The plan also includes cold water stream restoration, road connections, and professional services.

“As we’ve said in the past, there are negotiations associated with land acquisition, price points of land acquisition, and appraisals,” Mr. Oros said. “We wouldn’t comment on a specific piece of property as part of that need in that capital plan.”

Mr. Slagter raised another issue, which he said was not necessarily relevant to the budget commission’s mission, that the budget commission identified, which was the park board’s seven-year ban on public comment at board meetings.

Mr. Slagter said public comment is not legally required, but he wanted the board to be aware of that.

Geauga County’s is the only park district out of the 58 across Ohio that does not allow public comment.

The meeting adjourned without allowing public comment.

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