GPD Fiscal Officer Frustrated over Budget Hearing
August 26, 2022 by Brian Doering

Geauga Park District Fiscal Officer Jennifer Pae said during a recent park commissioners meeting the Geauga County Budget Commission ambushed her at the Aug. 16 tax budget hearing.

Geauga Park District Fiscal Officer Jennifer Pae said during a recent park commissioners meeting the Geauga County Budget Commission ambushed her at the Aug. 16 tax budget hearing.

Pae said what happened that day was premeditated and the commission was operating outside of its statutory responsibilities, according to the Ohio Revised Code.

“For those of you who may not know, I work within various Ohio public finance capacities since graduating with my Master of Public Administration (degree) from Cleveland State University in 1996,” Pae said during the Aug. 24 special Geauga Park District Commissioners meeting. “I even taught a graduate level public finance and budgeting course at CSU. For the past quarter century, I have never experienced what I experienced at the Aug. 16 tax budget hearing for the Geauga Park District.”

During the hearing, GPD officials were confronted on numerous budget issues by the three-member budget commission — comprising Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, Auditor Chuck Walder and Treasurer Chris Hitchcock — who took issue with a discrepancy in revenue numbers, a $1.3 million land acquisition fund they claim was unlawfully created and a lack of transparency with taxpayers.

After the tense hearing, the budget commission voted to table GPD’s 2023 tax budget until Aug. 31.

In an attempt to address those concerns, park commissioners passed a resolution Aug. 24 to rescind a previous resolution to create a reserve fund for land acquisition and authorize Pae to request an amended Certificate of Estimated Resources from the budget commission to return the $1.3 million to the general fund for the 2023 tax budget.

“The tax budget originally submitted on July 19 followed statute and more than demonstrated the need for the Geauga County auditor to continue to collect the 2.6 mills of property tax the voters have enacted to support their parks,” said Pae.

Pae said in the five years she worked in the State of Ohio Auditor’s Office, along with various local governments throughout the state, none of them had issues with their county tax budget commission.

“At the Aug. 16 meeting, I was accused of committing a criminal act and this was on record. The journalists covering that meeting painted a very biased picture that the Geauga Park District was lying and trading blows,” said Pae. “What is occurring is astonishingly petty and incredibly political.”

Pae said the so-called criminal act was the creation of a capital fund, which the park district has enacted in the past with the approval of the Geauga County auditor, as well as the tax budget commission.

“It is also permitted by the state auditor’s office as detailed in the legal matrix within Ohio’s compliance supplement and is used by other park districts like (Cleveland) Metroparks, (Metroparks) Toledo and Great Parks of Hamilton County,” said Pae.

In a follow up interview Aug. 26, Pae said the amendment is a possible solution to getting the tax budget passed.

“We are working with counsel and that is John Slagter with Tucker Ellis and they are in negotiations with the prosecutor’s office, which is the tax budget’s council,” said Pae. “It’s between our attorney and their attorney, and it’s in discussions … to hopefully come to some kind of resolution either before or at the Aug. 31 meeting.”

Pae added tax budgets should be a housekeeping item.

“It’s a safety check,” said Pae. “It’s not this dog and pony show that has happened or has been happening.”

Walder said in a follow-up interview Pae’s comments during the Aug. 24 meeting were déjà vu.

“This is exactly what (former GPD Treasurer) Michael Frederick claimed last year after last year’s budget hearings. This is just more of the same,” said Walder. “For some reason, the park district doesn’t want to own their budget submission. They want everyone else to fix their problems and they want to then blame the people who were fixing their problems with their lack of competency.”

Walder said the budget commission has a duty to require the entity who presents their budget to show proof of need and the park district just doesn’t do it very well.

“I know they have a very highly compensated fiscal officer and I would be embarrassed if I were her. She stood there and couldn’t explain why her numbers didn’t match her predecessor’s numbers, so she can be as hurt as she wants,” said Walder. “My understanding is her experience has been in Cuyahoga County where they waive these hearings, so she has zero experience coming before a budget commission, yet she professes to be an expert.”

Walder also noted Pae’s comment the tax budget followed statute and more than demonstrated the need to continue to collect the 2.6 mills in property tax was a statement and not a fact.

“Just because you submit a budget doesn’t guarantee anyone (gets) the money that they’ve requested to be collected. My job is to review her submission and determine if she has portrayed need. It’s not that she just checked off a box and submitted a piece of paper,” said Walder. “Her experience before a budget commission is incredibly limited. It’s a rubber stamp in Cuyahoga County. This is not Cuyahoga County.”

Walder said Pae presented a reserve fund that was done wrong and didn’t give a maximum amount, the correct term and the right source of the funds for which the money came from.

“Even on its face if you give her the benefit of the doubt, she screwed up how she created it. That’s not my fault. That’s not the budget commission’s fault,” said Walder. “She’s the one that has to defend it and her defense is, ‘I’m being maligned.’ That’s the same message that was sent to us last year by Michael Frederick.”

Walder added, “There’s a pattern here and the public is not stupid. They see the pattern. These people are well compensated and they’re supposed to be entrusted with taxpayer money. They have a duty and that duty is to protect the money and I don’t see that happening.”