Friday, January 14, 2000

Political pressure blamed for street deception


Repair money diverted to other projects

BY ROBERT ANGLEN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Political pressure caused city engineers to divert $15 million from basic road work to bigger, high-profile projects and misrepresent repairs for seven years.

        “It happened because people wanted to get these projects done,” Transportation Director John Deatrick said Thursday. “The effect is that less streets were done.”

        Following a city audit that found engineers misrepresented for seven years the amount of road repairs getting done and how much it cost, Mr. Deatrick has identified 25 projects funded with street-repair money that should not have been.

        “We have found where all the money was used,” Mr. Deatrick said, adding that public works employees intermingled road accounts in order to finish projects. “But it has all gone into some type of street work.”

        In annual reports between 1991 and 1997, city engineers reported 818 lane miles had been completed at an estimated cost of $65 million. But an internal audit found only 460 lane miles had been done for about $50.5 million.

        While explaining where the $15 million was spent, Mr. Deatrick said the new findings don't change how much work was done or that 60 percent of city streets are now in less than good condition.

        “It makes me feel good that money did not go into some other place than streets,” he said. “We are in complete agreement with the audit on the number of lane miles.”

        A lane mile is an 11-foot wide, one-mile long stretch of road.

        “This bears more investigation,” Mayor Charlie Luken said Thursday. “If decisions were made to change the street rehabilitation program, it

        should have been done in the open.”

        The revelations don't shed any light on why citizens and taxpayers were deceived about the number of roads being repaired each year, he said.

        Mr. Luken said taxpayers — who approved a 0.1 percent increase in the city's earnings tax 10 years ago for road improvements — need to have assurances that this won't happen again.

        “We can't have some manager decide to shift millions of dollars behind the scene,” Mr. Luken said. “That is intolerable.”

        Mr. Deatrick, who became director of the newly formed transportation department in November, said the money was transferred because of pressure from City Council and the community to get particular streets done.

        He said once public works crews were told to get a project done, it didn't seem to be much of a stretch to take money from the annual street rehabilitation program and dump it into the street improvement fund.

        The difference between street rehabilitation and street improvement is that rehabilitation is less costly and focuses on maintaining streets. Street improvements are major construction projects that could include widening a road and building a median.

        The council approves both rehab and street improvement work, but Mr. Deatrick said “bad practices” with accounting and oversight caused the transfer of funds and the misrepresentation of rehab work to go unnoticed.

        An example of this were major improvements to Martin Luther King Drive, which in 1994 was funded with $916,941 of street rehabilitation money.

        Other street improvement projects that got rehab money from 1991 to 1997 included Colerain Avenue, Guerley Road and Woodford Road. The biggest chunk of rehab money — $1.9 million — went to Kipling Avenue improvements from 1995 to 1997.

        Mr. Deatrick said the audit didn't find the $15 million because auditors were looking strictly at the street rehab program, not at street improvement.

        While city auditors continue an investigation, Mr. Deatrick said several management controls have been initiated to ensure this never happens again. Among them:

        • Reorganizing the contract process.

        • Establishing a new accounting system.

        • Developing new programs to track maintenance.

        A new street rehabilitation list is also being prepared, but Mr. Deatrick said it could take 20 years to fix the backlog.

        On Wednesday, Councilman Pat DeWine submitted a motion to the City Council that would change accounting procedures for every city department.

        He is calling for a system that would measure the costs of city services by providing a total for every activity, including street-repair work. Not having this “encourages inefficiency, inaccuracy, and unaccountability,” Mr. DeWine said in his motion.

       



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