Monday, December 12, 2011

Trent Williams's Double Talk

In view of the double talk that City Auditor Trent Williams resorted to in order to evade answering the questions of Frank Gerlach and Jane Murray about city finances at the recent hearing at the Court of Common Pleas, the underlined excerpt from the minutes of  the Portsmouth City Council for 12 January 2004, shown above,*  is revealing. Williams announced in January, 2004, that there were no deficits for the  year just passed, 2003. First Ward councilwoman Anne Sydnor asked how this balancing of the budget had been achieved. Where had the revenues  come from to erase an anticipated deficit? The question could not have been clearer, but Williams replied he “was not sure to what figures she was referring.” Williams gave the same evasive answer more than once when Gerlach asked the same question earlier this month. Williams said he was  not sure what figures Gerlach was asking about. Gerlach, like Sydnor in 2004, was asking for an accounting of the revenues that had help erase the deficit. Williams said he was not sure which revenues Gerlach was referring to. Williams was being evasive because it was not  “revenues” that had erased the budget but rather funds that had been transferred from the Capital Improvement fund. In October, 2003, with the approval of Judge Harcha, the  city had made up the deficit in the General Fund by transferring money from the Capital Improvement fund. By law, the Capital Improvement funds are supposed to be used only for capital improvements, for the city’s infrastructure, and for such structures as the Municipal Building. But a loophole in the law allows the city to petition  the Common Pleas Court to allow the transfer of CIP funds, which is what was done in 2003 and which is what the city is asking to do again, in 2011. The Capital Improvement funds are the piggy bank that the city periodically empties to pay off city employees.  

The sorry condition of the Municipal Building today is a consequence of the funneling of Capital Improvement funds into the General Fund, which is used to pay general operating expenses, such as salaries and benefits for city employees, including fire and police personnel. The  city has been generous to the fire and police personnel in particular because they are a potent political force in Portsmouth, and politicians cannot expect to stay in office if they don’t cater to that powerful political constituency. Now Judge Marshall, presiding in the Common Pleas Court, is being asked again to make an exception, even though, as Gerlach pointed out, the city is not currently in a deficit and has revenues coming in that will assure that it won’t fall into a deficit. Why does the city want the CIP funds to be transferred again? What is the emergency? The emergency is that the politicians, including City Solicitor Jones (who, last time we checked, appeared to be  mortgaged to the hilt and beholden to those who control the city financially**) wants to make sure there is enough money in the city treasury to provide a reported 12% pay increase in wages for the fire department. Can that be right, 12% for fire personnel in these belt-tightening times? Surely the court is not going to reward the city’s  budget busting-infrastructure wrecking behavior by allowing the transfer again. Will the citizens again have to take it to a higher court to see that justice is done, as it did when it appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn the Common Pleas Court’s ruling that City Clerk Jo Ann Aeh had not mutilated recall petitions?

The city is now rehiring the same employees, the same people, who negotiated the contracts while Kalb was mayor that put the city in the financial bind that caused the state to put Portsmouth on a fiscal watch list. Kalb will once again be in a position to help take Portsmouth down the road to bankruptcy, a road he knows something about, having traveled it himself personally, as did the  unelected, out-to-lunch mayor David Malone and the deadbeat president of city council, John Haas. The court should not allow the city to continue to  follow the same path of misusing capital improvement funds, which  led the state to declare Scioto County the first county ever to be in a fiscal emergency. The city will end up like the county if Williams is allowed to get away with his double talk. The city and the auditor have made no effort to change the way the city mishandles its finances since the Common Pleas Court approved the transfer in 2003. By approving another transfer, the court will be condoning the way the city auditor cooks the books.

       *For more on the 2003 transfer of funds, go to Teresa Mollette’s invaluable website  by clicking here.
     ** For my earlier post on Solicitor Jones's personal finances, click here.