County Grilled over Annual Budget
August 24, 2023 by Amy Patterson

Certifcation Tabled as Officials Question County Figures

Every year the Geauga County Budget Commission, comprising Auditor Chuck Walder, Treasurer Chris Hitchcock and Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, meets to review budgets submitted by municipalities and county entities.

Every year the Geauga County Budget Commission – comprising of Auditor Chuck Walder, Treasurer Chris Hitchock and Prosecutor Jim Flaiz – meets to meets to review budgets submitted by municipalities and county entities.

Most hearings take about a quarter of an hour, but the Aug. 21 hearing to ratify the Geauga County budget, which is controlled by Geauga County Commissioners, ran more than an hour and a half, ending with an agreement to table the discussion until Aug. 28.

The meeting opened new fronts on old conflicts, with Flaiz and Walder squaring off against County Administrator Gerry Morgan and throwing hardballs at Finance Director Adrian Gorton over last year’s budget disputes. Another point of contention is a large amount of funds the county is sitting on which the budget commission said should return to taxpayers if County Commissioners refuse to spend it.

“For many years, I’ve made it a point to try and treat every municipality exactly the same. If they are hoarding cash, they know they have to explain why they are hoarding the cash. Otherwise, it goes back in the taxpayers,” Hitchcock said as the hearing opened.

Geauga County Commissioner Jim Dvorak also attended the hearing.

Building Funds – and Priorities – Questioned

Flaiz peppered Gorton with questions about specific funds the county holds, including money set aside in 2019 in a capital reserve fund for the construction of the new administrative building on Ravenwood Drive. In January, Flaiz said, the fund still held about $4 million — Gorton said that number is now closer to $2 million.

“I thought the bonds paid for all of the construction cost,” Flaiz said.

“Well the bonds did, but then we put that money into the construction fund and spent it out of the construction fund, and whatever we have left we’ll probably just put into the bond retirement fund,” Gorton replied.

“Okay,” Flaiz said, “so that’s already overfunded.”

Gorton said the county had been trying to reduce the amount of time it carried debt on the building construction costs.

In a June budget forecast Gorton told commissioners the county’s building improvement fund held $4.4 million intended to be used to improve county buildings on Chardon Square, Flaiz questioned what the county planned to do with that money.

“In my 11 years as prosecutor I’ve never had a nickel budgeted for my office for building improvements,” Flaiz said. “What are we doing with the building improvement fund? Because you’re not improving these buildings.”

Gorton said it’s possible some of the money in the fund will be used for various projects, including a senior center for the department on aging. Flaiz said the county has not communicated what these projects are, how much they cost, or which funds will be tapped to pay for them.

“I think what we’re saying is … we are very fortunate in this county to have adequate funding or adequate money to do what the people in this county expect, whether that’s maintaining facilities, whether it’s building new facilities,” Walder said. “I’ve only been here five years, and in the five years I’ve been here, I’ve been told every year it’s in the plans to redo everything on the square, and yet I can’t get a bathroom put in. I have 11 people using one bathroom. And we have a bathroom next door, it has a dirt floor in the basement.”

Walder said as the second- or third-wealthiest county in the state, the facilities are antiquated and outdated.

“I guess if I lived in a county that was destitute and had no money in the bank, I would keep my mouth shut and say that’s okay,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s okay (that) we don’t have public access to restrooms on the square. You have to take an elevator up to the second floor and go there to go to the bathroom. And you know, people in a wheelchair couldn’t even come into this meeting.”

Walder said officials with offices on the square have found themselves repeatedly begging not for luxury, but for basic improvements to the assets that belong to the people.

“I mean, this isn’t looking for a Taj Mahal, but if you just look around you in this facility, in this building, there are stains on the ceiling, … the air conditioning doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s embarrassing. And it’s not for lack of having the money, it’s for lack of the will to do it.”

Flaiz said Gorton’s budget submission claimed the improvement of county buildings on the square is currently in the architectural phase.

“What is the name of the architect?” Hitchcock asked.

Gorton asked for clarification – whether he meant the architect currently working on a project to restore and expand the historic courthouse on Chardon Square — on which the county committed to spending a minimum of $15 million, after a legal settlement with the city.

“But you’re not using the building improvement fund for the courthouse,” Flaiz said, adding the county has enough money for the project, between funds already set aside and those received through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Hitchcock asked when an architect might be engaged for work to improve the facilities on the square.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Gorton said.

“Next year?” Hitchcock replied. “You’ve got four million bucks to spend.”

“I would say it would be within the year,” Morgan said, clarifying that he meant within a year, not within this calendar year.

Ghosts of Budgets Past

A central point of tension between the budget commission and county commissioners is the stripping-out of a requested increase for information technology staff months after the county’s 2023 budget was approved last year.

The IT department operates under the umbrella of the Automatic Data Processing board, of which Walder is the chief administrator.

“The money was removed from salaries that were approved by this budget commission between the time the budget was approved and final appropriation,” Walder said. “And yeah, it was done in an open session, (but it was) buried in the financials. Because when I asked the commissioners … nobody really knew when that happened or how it happened.”

Flaiz called out Morgan for holding discussions on county business individually with commissioners, cutting the public out of deliberations in open session. Morgan defended his actions, saying as long as he does not inform each commissioner of what the other decided, he is within his legal rights to discuss issues with each of them outside of meetings.

Walder contrasted the removal of funds for IT staff with the treatment of other county departments, like the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office. In December of last year, he said, the county restored about $860,000 to the GCSO’s budget, after earlier reducing the Sheriff’s budget request by $668,000.

“We didn’t need to wait for carryover, didn’t get any gift from heaven. We had the money,” Walder said. “I believe the comment made in their budget hearing was, ‘is there anything else you want?’ You gave them $200,000 more than they requested.”

Gorton said some budget requests had been denied for 2024, including $350,000 for ADP, $260,000 for the Probate/Juvenile Court and $400,000 for new GCSO radios.

But Walder said if the county had more accurately predicted revenue from sales tax – which has increased as inflation rose over the past year – it could more than adequately cover each of those requests and still have money left over.

Flaiz asked if the county’s plan was again to simply give the money to GCSO to fulfill this year’s budget requests after their budget hearing.

“Your tax budget’s a farce,” he said. “You publicly advertised you passed a tax budget, (but) it’s a total farce because then you have these budget hearings in … September, October,” he said. “Then the commissioners, in a very unpublic way, I think … pass the budget after, you know, there’s a bunch of talk back in the office about, well, we’re going to put this in, does everybody want to put this in, we’ll put this back in, the sheriff wanted this.”

Flaiz asked Gorton why money was moved out of the GCSO budget when it had a cash carryover of $330,000 in January 2022, and $1.2 million in Jan. 2023.

“What are we doing?” he asked Gorton.

“They’re having to buy all new radios,” Gorton said.

“I know,” Flaiz said. “There’s a million bucks in there.”

Walder said the county last year began to use its budget “as a political weapon,” which leads to choices being made for the wrong reasons.

“Last budget cycle, the budget was used as a weapon, to intimidate. You cannot do that. If we’re going to do that, we’re going to put the money back in the taxpayers’ hands,” he said. “I’m not going to sit and vote for a budget that I know is going to be altered after we pass it. If it is, I’m not going to vote for the budget. … If that’s the game we’re going to play, I want to take that money and give it back. And then we don’t have to worry about arguing about it anymore.”

Flaiz asked Gorton who ordered the removal of funds from the ADP budget request last year, but other than saying it was a request from an individual county commissioner, Gorton declined to give more details.

All three members of the budget commission discussed the possibility of approving the county’s budget submission, and later pursuing legal action if commissioners alter the budget before Jan. 1, 2024. However, they instead decided to table the county’s budget submission until a special meeting Aug. 28, to which all three county commissioners were invited.