Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Mayor takes heat for budget mess

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MONROE - A city councilman says the mayor should have done more to head off growing budget problems that will likely lead to higher taxes for residents.

Councilman Robert Youtsler on Monday criticized Mayor Mike Morris after disclosures last week that two recently resigned city officials apparently mismanaged millions of dollars for years, depleting cash reserves by more than $1 million and leaving an estimated deficit of $5 million in the city's annual operating budget of $10.5 million.

Youtsler suggests that Morris knew of problems under former city manager Donald Whitman and former financial director David Collins, especially after a state audit of the city's 2001 finances released in August 2002. He claims Morris did not then alert fellow council members - and later, in October 2002, continued to push for a $300,000 veterans park.

Morris responds that he, like other City Council members, was never informed of Monroe's worsening financial state until earlier this year.

"When you pay people to do a job, you expect the job to be done," he said of Whitman and Collins.

Moreover, he said, "the city manager runs the city." Morris said his position as mayor is merely ceremonial.

"I don't have any more responsibility as mayor than those other six guys on council," said Morris.

Morris' name, however, is listed on council meeting agendas as the "administrative liaison" between city administrators and council.

Councilman Steve Tannreuther said Morris "should have been more diligent" in communicating the financial problems to council.

But another councilman, Bob Routson, said that while he felt "deceived" by Whitman and Collins' alleged mismanagement, "Mike Morris is not the problem."

Morris said he never saw a copy of the 2001 audit when it was distributed by the state auditor's office last August.

But according to Eric Hardgrove, spokesman for the Ohio auditor's office, copies of such audits are always mailed to a city's four top officials: the mayor, financial and law directors and the president of council.

When former city manager Whitman was asked whether he had received a copy in August, he said he couldn't recall. Monroe law director Philip Callahan was unavailable for comment.

Youtsler said: "It's the mayor's job to be the liaison between the administration and council, and Morris did not do his job. He had a selfish reason for not telling us because he was pursuing this fancy, $300,000 veterans park he wanted taxpayers to pay for."

Initially, council unanimously approved spending $300,000 for the park and $52,000 for its giant bronze eagle. The park plans were shelved in December, but not before the purchase of the eagle, which now sits in an Oregon warehouse.

Monroe resident Gerry Basford said she is irritated that homeowners will soon be asked to pay higher taxes for what she described as "paying a penalty for city officials not doing their job right."

Council might put a 5-mill tax increase on the fall ballot that would cost the owner of a $150,000 home an estimated $227 more annually in property tax.


E-mail mclark@enquirer.com

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