Geauga Park District commissioners have been talking about cutting financial ties with the county for months. This week they made it official. District commissioners changed the bylaws, designated a deposit bank and hired a fiscal officer/treasurer effective July 1.
They signed the documents June 28.
Those few days and a number of other missteps revealed the lack of forethought by park district leaders.
Now they are dealing with a real mess.
During a special meeting on Monday, park commissioners voted unanimously to sever ties with the Geauga County auditor and treasurer. On Tuesday, the park district requested and received a loan from the Geauga County Commissioners for $54,000 to cover the cost of health insurance for 46 park employees.
Park District Executive Director John Oros asked the county whether park employees could stay in the County Employee Benefits Consortium of Ohio pool. He admitted that employees may not have health insurance for a short time. That means park employees may have to use COBRA starting July 1 until the park district figures out insurance coverage.
County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz called the park district’s move reckless.
Before the park district vote, county Auditor Charles Walder detailed in writing the steps that would need to be taken for a smooth transition. He asked, what’s the rush?
What is the motivation for this change? Don’t look at the park commissioners for an answer; they have hardly talked about the issue in public.
If provisions for health insurance were overlooked, what else is hanging in the balance?
According to Mr. Walder, payroll was to be processed on Friday, July 2, the end of the work week. Because the park board cut ties with the county on Monday, Mr. Walder said he could not legally deal with the park payroll.
Then there is money.
Although park commissioners on Monday designated Middlefield Bank as the district’s depository, Mr. Walder said earlier this week that he had no account or routing numbers to transfer the park district’s money.
Mr. Oros said the district as of Tuesday had no phone or internet service. He explained that the district’s request to continue contracting IT and phone services through Geauga County after the financial cut was denied by the Automatic Data Processing Board. ADP board members expressed concern about the lack of oversight that could involve equipment used and possible data breaches through Wi-Fi use at the parks.
The county apparently was able to transfer some money into the park district’s new account later this week, so the phones may be working now.
Again, we ask why the change? Why the rush?
Mr. Walder said the county has been providing $1 million in annual services to the park district for free over the years. We are unaware of any major complaints about these services.
Then there’s oversight. Under the park board’s changes, Geauga County would still retain control over the annual budget approval process. The daily oversight, however, goes to the park’s new fiscal officer and the state. The county auditor and treasurer will no longer oversee bill payments and other park expenditures.
This will make it more difficult for citizens to know how the money is being spent. Let’s not forget that tax dollars fund the park district.
We cannot help but wonder if changes by the park board go back to the person who appoints the commissioners. The park district was formed about 60 years ago under Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545 that calls for the county probate judge to select board members. Today that seat is held by Judge Timothy Grendell, who is involved in a payment dispute with Mr. Walder that is before the Ohio Supreme Court.
The best course of action is for park commissioners to undo all the changes and reconnect with county fiscal services. But we don’t know if that is even possible at this point.
We do know that park commissioners have to clean up this mess and tell the public why this change is taking place.