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Turmoil at city hall : Restaurant at Commons facing eviction


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The owner of Snappy Tomato Pizza in The Commons must pay the city of Columbus $27,238 in back rent, utilities and penalties or face eviction.

Larken & Co. LLC has not paid rent or utilities in 12 months for the restaurant, something the city did not know until an unidentified source told Stan Gamso, the attorney for the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, last month.

The revelation that a restaurant at The Commons could fail to pay its rent for 12 months with no one noticing caused an immediate furor — from the mayor’s office, through the City Council, the Columbus Park Board, the Redevelopment Commission and The Commons Board, a group established by city code to be responsible for operations and administration for the downtown public and retail space.

The Redevelopment Commission, operated by the city and funded through tax-increment financing, exists to provide economic growth by rehabilitating land and buildings in Columbus. The six-member commission, with five voting members, manages leases and finds tenants

for The Commons, the $18 million downtown centerpiece at Third and Washington streets. Snappy Tomato has been a tenant at The Commons since 2011.

Three Redevelopment Commission members are appointed by Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown (who appointed herself, Sarah Cannon and Dave Wright to the board for 2014) and two by the city council, (Frank Jerome and Steven Scgalski), who are all voting members. The nonvoting member, Robert Abrams, is appointed by the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

Brown, who was elected president of the commission this past week, contends parks department employees working at The Commons office were responsible for collecting the lease payments from the restaurants and failed to

collect the money from Snappy Tomato or notify the city that the restaurant wasn’t paying

its rent.

Confusion was apparent when city officials acknowledged Thursday that there was no document outlining a procedure for where and how Commons restaurants were to pay their rent.

City Council members

issued a statement saying language in the Commons master lease clearly places collecting rent and reporting finances as the Redevelopment Commission’s responsibility, not the parks department.

However, late Friday,

Gamso said he had located a resolution approved on Dec. 17, 2012, by the Redevelopment Commission that directed the Parks and Recreation Department to receive all income and utility payments from the tenants at The Commons’ retail spaces for 2013.

Gamso apologized for the confusion his comments caused when he said he could not find any documentation outlining a relationship between the commission and parks department to receive funding.

While the resolution links the payments to the parks department, it is unclear as to how the payments are to be made or to whom and what procedure must be used to verify payments are being made.

In a lease amendment dated Oct. 10, 2012, Snappy Tomato’s lease called for its payments to be made to The Commons Board at 123 Washington St., which is Columbus City Hall.

In addition to the Snappy Tomato lease, the commission rented space in The Commons to Puccini’s Smiling Teeth and Subway and formerly leased space to Detour American Grille and Bar, which is no longer in business.

Puccini’s and Subway have been making payments to The Commons office, which is staffed by parks employees, according to city officials.

In a master lease agreement that began Dec. 17, 2012, and ended Dec. 31, 2013, the previous master lease was terminated and The Commons restaurant properties were assigned and subleased to the redevelopment commission. It was set up for automatic renewal.

The new master lease does not contain specific language as to how the four subleases, to Puccini’s, Scotty’s Greenhouse, Snappy Tomato and Subway, are to pay their rent, whom they would pay the rent to or even when it is due. Scotty’s is no longer in business.

City officials contend that while the leases do not provide substantial support for The Commons, the lease money does serve a purpose that

helps taxpayers.

“Any revenue we get from The Commons reduces

taxpayer subsidization of the facility,” Brown said in an earlier interview.

Brown said the lack of recognition of the missed payments is a substantial oversight on the part of the parks department. She was notified of the oversight by Ben Wagner, the parks department director, on Dec. 19, Wagner said. Brown relieved Wagner of his duties and moved him to a lesser position in the department Monday.

Gamso said he spoke to Tim Larken, owner of Snappy Tomato, in December and did not receive a commitment to pay the past due amounts. Larken told him the company was having financial problems, leading to difficulties in making the rent payments.

Larken could not be

reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

Gamso told Redevelopment Commission members Thursday he mailed a certified letter Dec. 24 to Snappy Tomato seeking payment. He gave the restaurant until Wednesday to pay in full or be evicted.

The original lease for Snappy Tomato was signed

Oct. 24, 2011, with Columbus Downtown Inc., a nonprofit company created by the previous city administration to develop downtown by negotiating leases on city-owned property and other duties.

The restaurant owner was required to pay $18,000 a year in rent, spread out over 12 monthly payments of $1,500. Additionally, there is a 10 percent late fee on the missed payments, which now totals $1,800, $1,986.52 for utilities, and additional rent of $2,061 in the first year of the lease and $3,390 in the second year of the lease, according to Gamso’s letter.

Frank Jerome, the Columbus City Council representative on the Redevelopment Commission, urged the commission to make a decision about eviction quickly after the Wednesday deadline, if payment was not made.

But Brown said that the board should give Larken the benefit of the doubt in rectifying the situation before scheduling the follow-up meeting.

“We have to protect the taxpayers, so I think we should get on it as fast as we can,” Jerome said.

Letter from Mayor Kristen Brown to Ben Wagner

The following is the letter from Mayor Kristen Brown to Ben Wagner giving details about why she is reassigning him from a department head to a marketing position.

Dec. 30, 2013

Ben Wagner

Via hand delivery

Re: Job Reassignment

Ben:

Pursuant to Indiana Code 36-4-11-2(d), I am notifying you that I am reassigning you from your position as Director of Parks and Recreation to the position of marketing coordinator, a position in the department more aligned with your capabilities. Also pursuant to the above referenced statute, I am required to send a written statement of the reasons for the removal of the director of Parks and Recreation to the City Council; therefore, they will receive a copy of this letter.

As public servants, we are entrusted by the public we serve to be good stewards of their money and assets. The public deserves and should expect no less. As the director of Parks and Recreation, you have enormous responsibilities for the day-to-day operations and finances and the long-term planning and preservation of the city’s outstanding parks and recreation system. Our parks system is a vast, multimillion-dollar operation comprised of extraordinary community facilities and programs that serve as a vital contributor to our quality of life.

Effective leadership of the department is therefore of critical importance. Among other leadership qualities, it requires strong administrative and financial management capabilities. It also requires critical-thinking skills to assess new situations and reassess existing situations and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. These capabilities

are especially important now given the realities of today’s financial constraints and the public’s expectations for more fiscal discipline and accountability. Based on your performance as director, I lack confidence that you have those leadership capabilities to effectively lead the organization going forward.

Recent internal audits of the Parks Department have uncovered carelessness and an absence of financial controls resulting in the loss of public funds; inefficient and inappropriate uses of public funds; and expenditures of public funds that violate the city’s written personnel policies.

An audit of lease payments by tenants at The Commons recently revealed that a tenant has not paid his rent and utility bills for the last 12 months. It is the Parks Department’s responsibility to ensure the city receives lease and utilities payments for The Commons; however, you and your staff failed to notice that payments were not being made. A review of your department’s revenue management processes revealed a lack of financial control procedures. When these omissions were brought to your attention, you failed to notify me or the president of The Commons Board for more than a month and you failed to take corrective measures to ensure such negligence did not occur again in the future.

A recent internal audit of city credit card expenditures for the last 12 months shows questionable judgment in the use of the credit cards in the Parks Department, including inappropriate expenditures and several expenditures that violate the city’s policy restrictions on the use of the credit cards, such as for meals for non-city employees, parties and gifts. Because these expenditures have been “going on for years” is not adequate justification for them. Particularly in light of our financial constraints, the city leaders must be able to self-impose fiscal discipline and continually review internal processes and procedures for

improvement as opposed to blind adherence to the way things have been done in the past.

The results of these internal audits reveal insufficient management oversight and capability, poor judgment and a lack of regard for the city’s spending policies. These deficiencies are not acceptable for a department head responsible for the day-to-day operations of such significant and important public resources.

Last year, an audit revealed deferred maintenance of parks facilities to be approximately

$6 million. This means those activities required to preserve our parks’ facilities (buildings, fields, courts, trails, playground equipment, etc.) and keep them in acceptable condition were not performed when they should have been.

This backlog of expenses is very significant, representing more than one-and-a-half times the annual budget for the parks general fund. The lack of needed maintenance and repairs has led to serious asset deterioration, particularly at Hamilton Center and Donner Center.

Consequently for the last two years, I’ve tried to impress upon you the need to consider immediate and long-term, financially responsible options to eliminate the remaining backlog of expenses and close the

gap between the annual cost of maintaining our parks system and available funding. Only then can we ensure the viability of our outstanding parks system and programs. In the last 24 months you’ve been unable to make any progress toward producing such a plan.

Allowing you to continue to

lead the department puts the long-term viability of our parks system at risk and the City government’s credibility with the public at risk. As mayor, it is incumbent upon me to uphold the public’s trust. That duty can only be fulfilled with department heads who are capable stewards of the public’s resources.

You have certainly been a great advocate for our parks and programs and their continued growth. I believe you can contribute in a positive and meaningful way to the Parks Department going forward, but in a capacity better aligned with your skills and strengths. The marketing coordinator role has potential to be a good fit for your talents and interests. Therefore, I’m reassigning you to the marketing coordinator position in Parks and Recreation effective immediately. Your salary will be in keeping with the allowable amount for this position in the city’s salary ordinance approved by City Council.

Sincerely,

Kristen Brown, mayor

cc: City Council members

Letter from Wagner to members of the Columbus Park Board

The following is a letter that Ben Wagner sent Thursday to members of the Columbus Park Board after learning Monday from Mayor Kristen Brown and City Attorney Jeff Logston that he was being reassigned to a lower position within the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, from director to marketing coordinator.

Jan. 2, 2014

Dear Park Board,

I am writing you in response to the letter I received from the mayor on Dec. 30, 2013, entitled “Job Reassignment.” I would like to respond to the allegations and ensure that you have an understanding of my position.

I disagree with the allegations made by the mayor and Jeff Logston that are being used to justify my demotion from director of parks and recreation to marketing coordinator. These allegations are unfounded and do not merit reassignment or demotion.

Here are

the facts.

Commons tenant rent and utilities

Allegation: Excerpt from

mayor’s letter, “When these omissions were brought to your attention, you failed to notify me or the president of The Commons Board for more than a month ...”

The Truth:

Dec. 13, 2013: Stan Gamso, Heather Pope and Sarah Cannon called to notify me that there was an issue.

Dec. 18, 2013: (Parks Department Director of Business Services) Jamie (Brinegar) met with Tim Larken of Snappy’s in efforts to resolve the problem.

Dec. 19, 2013: Stan called me after speaking with Jamie and said he was very concerned they may not pay and said one of us needs to notify the mayor. I volunteered to call her. I immediately called the mayor and got voicemail. I then called Sherry Stark, president of the Commons Board. At 3:02 p.m. that day, the mayor called me back, and we discussed the issue. I informed her that I would be happy to contact Larken myself and she told me not to call, that this would be handled by attorneys.

Credit Cards

Allegation: Excerpt from Mayor’s letter, “A recent internal audit of City credit card expenditures the last 12 months shows

questionable judgment in the use

of the credit cards in the

Parks Department ...”

The Truth: The credit card misuse allegations are unconscionable. These charges relate to lunches for the Park Board during meetings that were approved by Jeff Logston, volunteer boards ($201 for soccer board, $120.08 for Baseball Board), and the Parks and Recreation Christmas lunch ($510.74). All of our expenditures are reviewed by staff, board, Clerk/Treasurer’s office and State Board of Accounts.

Deferred Maintenance

Allegation: Excerpt from mayor’s letter, “... close the gap between the annual cost of maintaining our parks system and available funding. In the last

24 months you’ve been unable to make any progress ...”

The Truth: The mayor is correct that there is a considerable amount of deferred maintenance. Thanks to the City Council, our Parks and Recreation Department received $3,000,000 to focus on catching up with deferred maintenance and we have been working hard over the last 24 months to focus those funds on asset preservation and improvement. Also in the last 24 months, thanks to our hardworking staff and the leadership and generosity of community philanthropists we have been able to secure $2,750,000 in private contributions for Parks and Recreation facilities.

I hope this clarifies my position. I welcome any questions you may have. Thank you for your service.

Sincerely,

Ben Wagner

Statement from all members of the Columbus City Council

The following is a statement from all members of the Columbus City Council responding to demotion of Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner to a marketing position.

On Dec. 30 the Columbus City Council received a letter via email from Mayor Kristen Brown’s office titled “Job Reassignment.” This letter, addressed to Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner, was to notify him of a job reassignment, a demotion really, from the director’s position to the marketing coordinator position. This demotion represented a nearly 50 percent cut in Ben Wagner’s salary and a 100 percent cut in his responsibilities as director. The letter continued to list a number of alleged infractions to justify this demotion, including personal attacks on his leadership capabilities and credibility.

Before presenting this letter to Ben Wagner and the City Council, the mayor neglected to have a single conversation with the members of the governing body of the Parks and Recreation Department, the Park Board. There was also no discussion between the Mayor’s Office and the liaison from City Council to the Parks and Recreation Board. There had been no progressive discipline measures placed in his personnel file. In fact, Ben received a favorable review from the mayor as late as December 10, 2013.

The mayor makes accusations of an absence of financial controls, inefficient and inappropriate uses of public funds and expenditures that violate personnel policies. She makes these accusations without any documentation to support them. An internal audit of the Parks Department is referenced in these accusations which no one from the Parks Board, Parks Department or City Council has seen.

Her accusation of an absence of financial controls references the collection of rent from a tenant in The Commons. This responsibility was not agreed to by the Parks Board or assigned by the Redevelopment Commission to the Parks Department. Financial oversight of the Commons was assumed by the Parks Department without any documentation designating them as the “rent collectors” for the Redevelopment Commission. The language in the master lease of The Commons clearly places collecting rent and reporting finances as the responsibility of the Redevelopment Commission, not the Parks Department. This confusion in oversight of The Commons’ leasable spaces resulted in 12 months of uncollected rent from one tenant. The letter also accuses Ben of withholding the information about the uncontrolled rent for more than a month from the Mayor’s Office and Commons Board. In truth, Ben was only notified by members of the Redevelopment Commission, who are ultimately responsible for collecting this rent, just six days before he took responsibility for an oversight that was not the Parks Department’s to begin with.

The mayor has also made allegations of “questionable judgment” and “inappropriate expenditures” with city credit cards. These allegations are based on the mysterious internal audit that has not been made public. The mayor claims violations of the city’s credit card policy, a policy that does not demand the removal or reassignment of city employees but removal of the credit card in question. According to the mayor, questionable expenditures include lunches provided to the Park Board that were approved by the city attorney/director of operations and finance, an annual lunch for two community volunteer boards (soccer and baseball), and the Parks Department’s annual Christmas Party. Significantly, these expenditures did not use general fund tax dollars. They were paid for from the Parks Non-Reverting Fund, an account that is funded solely by Parks and Recreation program user fees. These claims were reviewed and approved by staff, the Park Board, the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office and the Indiana State Board of Accounts.

The most unfounded accusation of the letter blames Ben and the Parks Department for “deferred maintenance of parks facilities.” The mayor claims that the Parks Department has $6 million in deferred maintenance and that Ben bears responsibility for this. The Parks Department, like any other city department, is given an operating budget every year from the Mayor’s Office and City Council. There were many years under the previous administration where little or no capital funding was made available for parks. Although several city departments have deferred maintenance issues, including roads, the city garage and fire department facilities, no other department head has been held to such a standard. The City Council has asked repeatedly for the mayor to begin a Six Sigma study of capital needs funding for the Parks Department with no response.

The City Council believes that all city employees and volunteers deserve to be respected, appreciated and applauded for their tireless commitment to our community. They should expect no less. It is our responsibility to recognize excellence in public service and treat it carefully. It is one of our community’s greatest assets.

Unfortunately, Mayor Brown has chosen a different path. We take exception to her confrontational approach to Ben and, by extension, the Parks Board volunteers who supervise him and our parks system.

We also believe Ben should be given the opportunity to refute the mayor’s charges before an independent authority, without the mayor acting as judge and jury.

Dascal Bunch,

City Council District 1

Ryan Brand,

City Council District 2

Frank Jerome,

City Council District 3

Frank Miller,

City Council District 4

Tim Shuffett,

City Council District 5

Jim Lienhoop,

City Council at large

Kenny Whipker,

City Council at large

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