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A simmering dispute between Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown and the City Council has roiled into public view.
The sparring match is about who should control $7.5 million in spending on capital improvement projects for 2013.
The friction dates to Oct. 2, when the council approved the 2013 city budget, with $46.2 million in spending. It also passed an amendment — proposed by council member Jim Lienhoop — that requires the mayor to seek council approval for certain expenditures from the capital improvement and cumulative capital funds.
During the Oct. 20 council meeting, a resolution was introduced that would approve a large list of capital improvement projects, their funding sources and estimated costs, allowing the city to move forward with them instead of coming back for piecemeal approval.
A CLOSER LOOK
Mayor Kristen Brown and city department heads identify city’s capital needs for the Columbus City Council.
The Capital Planning Committee (mayor, city engineer, city clerk-treasurer and Councilmen Jim Lienhoop, Dascal Bunch and Aaron Hankins) begins five-year capital planning process.
July 30, 31
Hearings held for 2013 city budget.
City Council passes 2013 budget of $46.2 million in spending but also passed an amendment that requires the mayor to seek council approval for large expenditures from the capital improvement and cumulative capital funds.
Mayor has resolution introduced at City Council meeting that identifies list of capital improvement projects and their funding sources for council approval, so they can begin work on them at the start of next year and not have to return multiple times for approval. Councilman Jim Lienhoop proposes tabling resolution for extra time to study it, which draws public, critical reply from the mayor.
Next City Council meeting. Council expected to vote on capital expenditures resolution.
“I would have the authority to buy items off that plan next year for which money has already been appropriated by the council. This would effectively reverse the decision of Oct. 2,” Brown said Thursday.
Two days earlier during the council meeting, Lienhoop expressed his desire to postpone action on the resolution.
“I don’t see how it pains anybody to wait two more weeks,” he said.
That drew a sharp reply from Brown, who criticized Lienhoop’s role in deals made in years past to bring restaurants into The Commons and the Jackson Street parking garage.
“I find it a bit ironic, Jim, coming from you, who sat on the (Columbus) Redevelopment Commission last year and funneled millions of dollars through a private entity for which nobody can see how it got spent except for a handful of people,” she said.
“I think that comment is way out of line, way out of line,” Lienhoop shot back.
“I don’t. I don’t understand what is wrong with this process that we’ve been going through for months,” the mayor answered.
Afterward, Brown stood her ground, indicating: “It’s politics at this point.”
Brown added that she believes many of the council’s decisions have political overtones, despite the fact that the mayor and all council members are Republicans.
Lienhoop, the only member of the City Council who served before this year, was a member of the previous redevelopment commission, whose actions the mayor had criticized as a private citizen and last year during her campaign for office.
Brown objected to the creation and use of Columbus Downtown Inc., a private company that acted on behalf of the redevelopment commission to acquire property, negotiate deals and sign leases. She objected to how that setup kept the use of taxpayer money from public view.
“They certainly circumvented public laws about access and expenditures,” Brown said Wednesday.
The mayor and current redevelopment commission are negotiating with the developer of the downtown Cole apartment complex over a disputed $300,000 payment that CDI and former redevelopment commission members said they would pay Buckingham Cos.
The mayor also is trying to place all CDI operations under the control of the public redevelopment commission and shut down CDI.
Lienhoop said Wednesday that he called the mayor out of line because he thought “the comment was untrue, and that’s why I said what I did. It’s not really relevant to the discussion at hand.”
He declined to discuss the mayor’s comments further.
Council member Frank Miller said Wednesday that he was surprised by the mayor’s comments to Lienhoop and didn’t think the meeting was an appropriate place for them.
“I don’t think it was proper and don’t think it was anything germane to the discussion we were having,” he said.
Miller said that he tried to calm the situation by pointing out to the mayor that the resolution was new to the council members, and they needed time to understand it.
“That’s part of the checks-and-balance duties,” he said at the meeting.
Brown, however, said she welcomes the council’s financial checks-and-balances role, believing that it is healthy and is how democracy works.
“We’ve given them an item-by-item plan for next year that has been in place since July with no significant changes. Once approved by the council, I can’t deviate from that plan,” she said.
However, Brown opposes the amendment passed Oct. 2 that requires her to return to the council for approval every time she wants to pay for big-ticket items.
The capital improvement fund had been listed as one line item of $1.2 million in the 2013 budget. The Oct. 2 amendment split the money into two pools: $100,000, from which projects and items do not need council approval, and the remaining $1.1 million, from which projects and items need council approval. It would be up to the mayor to decide from which pool to pay for a project or item. Expenditures from the $185,000 cumulative capital fund would need council approval with the amendment.
For example a $180,000 street sweeper listed in the 2013 capital improvement fund would need council approval. A $21,500 animal care vehicle also listed in that fund could be paid from the $100,000 pool without council approval, or from the $1.2 million pool with council approval.
That amendment was proposed by Lienhoop to provide greater oversight.
Jeff Logston, the city’s director of operations and finance, said nowhere in city code are there designations for the types of expenditures as required by the Oct. 2 amendment. But city code does require the approval of a capital improvement plan for items costing at least $5,000 and that have a useful life of at least three years, he added.
The mayor said the council is required by municipal code to adopt a capital plan for next year. The projects listed are ones that have been discussed for most of the past year.
She asked last week what the council’s concern was and if there was something on the spending list that they think the city shouldn’t buy.
“It’s time for them to let me do my job,” Brown said Wednesday.
Miller said the reason the council wanted to delay a decision, and ultimately tabled the resolution by a 7-0 vote, was concern about what passage of the resolution would mean to oversight of the spending.
He said the council has concern that passing the resolution would shift oversight of spending for the projects to the Columbus Board of Public Works and Safety. The mayor is one of the three members of that board.
Between now and the next meeting Dec. 4, the council will review with its attorney, Pete King, the resolution and city codes to get a better understanding of the issue, Miller said.
Logston said the money would not go into the Board of Works budget because it would be in a separate capital improvements fund. He added that the capital improvements committee still would have oversight.
Capital improvement projects
An example of items on the city’s 2013 capital improvement project list:
Fire engine 4
Police vehicles and cameras
Automated truck toter
Fire radio system
Police vehicle lease
Tandem axle truck
with snow plow
Electric ice resurfacer
Single axle truck
with snow plow
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