Commissioners’ Budget Passes 2-1, with a Warning
September 6, 2023 by Amy Patterson

Officials Condemn Lack of Transparency

The Geauga County Budget Commission finally approved a 2024 budget submitted by Geauga County Commissioners Sept. 1, with Auditor Chuck Walder voting against the approval.

The Geauga County Budget Commission finally approved a 2024 budget submitted by Geauga County Commissioners Sept. 1, with Auditor Chuck Walder voting against the approval.

The budget commission consists of Geauga County Treasurer Chris Hitchcock, Prosecutor Jim Flaiz and Walder.

“We have been presented a request for need for over $36 million of projects lacking detail, timeline or accurate status, yet we are simultaneously to believe that $2.4 million of legitimate departmental and agency requests lack adequate revenue to support inclusion,” Walder said. “We, as a commission, then point to $4.9 million of immediate current year revenue unaccounted for and an additional $2.46 million of additional 2024 revenue, which we are certifying today. These changes increase the anticipated 2024 ending balance by over $7 million.”

The budget was approved on the “yes” votes of Hitchcock and Flaiz, who each clarified their reasons for approval.

After hearings held Aug. 21 and Aug. 28, the commission asked the county to increase 2023 revenue forecasts to adequately fund 2024 budget requests, and to provide an accurate estimate of carryover funds for next year. The budget commission also asked for more realistic increases in 2024 revenue projections and requested the county operate along a budgeting timeline the state uses.

Hitchcock said Sept. 1 this is the first time in his memory the commission has been forced to establish a budget for a county entity.

“Unfortunately, in this case, it’s the county’s budget (and) they are the largest entity of all of them,” he said, adding he feels the changes are warranted.

“But, I do think that we are establishing a precedent that I do not want to do again,” he said. “This should be a one-time event and as I said previously, this should be the serious warning to the county for them to be far more transparent.”

Flaiz said his vote is not to approve the county’s budget, but to approve the budget imposed upon the county by the commission. The “defective” budget submitted by the county, he said, was “a complete fabrication of reality.”

“What we’re voting on is the budget for the county with the fixes the best we can do at this point,” Flaiz said. “They’ve made progress in the last two years, (but) this $341,000 estimated ending balance Is insulting to the taxpayers. It is.”

Flaiz said he approved the modified budget as a way to take things incrementally.

The budget commission will have a chance to get tougher on transparency with county agencies under the commissioners’ hiring authority in six months when their hearings are held, he added.

Noting an almost complete silence from Geauga County Administrator Gerry Morgan in the county’s first two budget hearings, Walder said Morgan has offered “no commitments, no promises, no assurances, no apologies” for a budget the county was forced to revise after the budget commission found alarmingly high balances in some funds while other requests continue to go unfunded.

Although no other county officials attended the Sept. 1 hearing, Walder used the opportunity to again call out Morgan’s lack of response in recent budget talks.

“(Morgan) did not sit silent when in March 2022, he threatened to screw with my budget or when he called me incompetent as county auditor. He didn’t sit silent when his staff assured me that our 2023 cyber initiatives would be funded by the commissioners. He didn’t sit silent when he accused my staff of attempting to perform a hostile takeover of (the Geauga County Department of) Water Resources and he didn’t sit silent when accusing my staff of being the cause of the McFarland (wastewater plant) shutdown,” Walder said.

Morgan also promised to fund an investigation of the McFarland incident, which never took place, Walder said.

His frustrations include Morgan’s challenge to a state law authorizing the county’s Automatic Data Processing board to operate and his attempts to propose a legislative change to that law.

Walder said Morgan signed a complaint last September which resulted in commissioners filing a lawsuit and eventually a restraining order against Walder, the ADP board and two of Walder’s staff.

That move cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

“He didn’t sit silent regarding his desire to encourage the commissioners to pass a resolution to dissolve ADP. Nor was he silent when he approved … more than a quarter million dollars of ADP salaries to be removed from our already-approved 2023 budget,” Walder said. “He did, however, sit silent throughout these 2024 budget hearings.”

Walder took the opportunity to publicly apologize to his staff, who he said have personally and professionally made significant investments in making the budgeting process more transparent and accountable to taxpayers.

Walder said at the Aug. 28 budget commission meeting — when commission requested a timeline from Morgan on plans for spending the amounts currently earmarked for building improvements and a proposed senior center — he allowed his hope for progress to overshadow his duty for demanding continuous improvement.

“The silence is deafening regarding funding the legitimate requested need for certain county agencies,” he said. “I, therefore, must conclude that hope alone does not do it for me. In my opinion, this is an unreasonable budget which does not adequately demonstrate need and I am obligated to vote ‘no’ on its approval.”