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Proposal focuses on rent, utilities

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The Columbus Redevelopment Commission will consider a resolution tonight specifying that parks and recreation employees will collect rent and utility payments from tenants at The Commons in 2014.

But some city officials say the resolution can’t require that because the parks department and the park board have not agreed to accept the responsibility.

Redevelopment Director Heather Pope said the resolution will authorize the city parks and recreation department to collect rent and utility money from Commons tenants and to place it into a fund the parks department controls. The resolution does not indicate why the parks department is specified to collect the rent and utility payments, although parks department employees work in The Commons office. The redevelopment commission is the leaseholder for The Commons.

Under leases managed by Columbus Downtown Inc., the former nonprofit downtown development company created by the city, Commons rental checks were delivered to the clerk-treasurer’s office for deposit, and the money was moved into the Commons fund for future expenses.

The city’s clerk-treasurer is the fiscal officer for the city, maintaining records, receiving and caring for all city money, keeping accounts and managing the city’s finances.

When Mayor Kristen Brown disentangled CDI from city government, lease management of The Commons was given to the redevelopment commission. The checks stopped going to the clerk-treasurer and began being collected by parks employees.

However, no formal procedures were put in place to govern how parks employees were to collect the money or what they were to do with it, according to the parks department. In 2013, a parks employee, working in The Commons office, collected the rent and utilities payments and deposited them in the bank.

Stan Gamso, redevelopment commission attorney, produced a 2013 resolution — approved Dec. 17, 2012 — that said the commission “authorizes the Department of Parks and Recreation to receive into Fund 114 all income and utility payments from the tenants in the Commons Retail Spaces for calendar year 2013.”

Pope said the 2014 resolution will be similar to this 2013 version but that it would not be available for distribution before tonight’s 6 o’clock meeting at City Hall.

The 2013 resolution, titled “Resolution of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission to direct Clerk-Treasurer to Transfer Funds,” is part of an ongoing disagreement involving the mayor’s office, redevelopment commission, city council and park board.

Differing opinions

Park board president Brian Russell and city council member Ryan Brand interpret the resolution differently from Mayor Kristen Brown and other redevelopment officials.

Russell doesn’t believe the 2014 resolution will be binding on the parks department because “we are two independent boards,” he said.

“Traditionally what happens is that the two city boards will discuss a proposal and then work together on putting together an intra-agency agreement spelling out the details of the agreement,” he wrote in an email Friday to the Republic.

“I expect that if their resolution passes, and if it involves the parks department, someone from the redevelopment commission will contact a representative of the park board to begin discussions about putting together a possible agreement between the boards. Then I would think both boards would need to approve the agreement before it would take effect.”

Brand also maintains the redevelopment commission cannot unilaterally direct the park board to collect Commons rent collections.

“Without the parks department approval, it never occurred,” he said of the 2013 resolution. “It has nothing to do with collections.”

Referring to the title of the resolution, Brand said it only allows the city’s clerk-treasurer to move money around and to make sure the rent and utility payments go into Fund 114, controlled by the parks department.

“That resolution does not dictate to the park department to collect money whatsoever,” Brand said. “It gives Louann (Welmer), the city clerk-treasurer, direction on what to do with the funds as she is receiving them.”

Unpaid bills

Rent-collection and deposit records from Commons tenants became an issue when city officials learned toward the end of last year that Snappy Tomato Pizza had not paid any rent or utilities during 2013, with its obligation to the city rising to $27,238, including late penalties.

Brown held former city parks and recreation director Ben Wagner responsible for failing to have procedures in place that would have detected the missing rent payments, and Dec. 30 she demoted him to marketing director in the department and cut his pay in half.

In an earlier interview, Wagner said he’s not sure why the parks department was ever designated to receive the money. He said it made more sense for the payments to go to the leaseholder — the redevelopment commission.

Wagner responded to the demotion by saying the mayor’s claims were unfounded and did not merit reassignment or demotion.

“The issue probably is that there is no written agreement, no memorandum of understanding, between the Redevelopment Commission and the Parks and Recreation Department,” Wagner said in an earlier interview. “So there was some confusion on how to handle the revenue from the tenants.”

The city set new controls early this month on how Commons tenants were to be monitored about paying rent and utilities. The new procedures were established by Brown; Matt Caldwell, the city’s director of operations and finances; and Jamie Brinegar, director of business services for the parks department.

Those procedures call for parks department employees who work at The Commons to notify the redevelopment commission president, who is also the mayor, and the commission attorney, Gamso, if a tenant fails to pay rent or utilities.

The parks director of business services must now provide monthly financial reports about the rent and utilities payments to the city and park board.

Snappy Tomato Pizza settled its lease and utility obligations with the city by making an oral offer to pay $18,500 and vacate the premises Jan. 17.

In a surprise move Tuesday, Columbus City Council members restored Wagner’s pay, boosting the marketing coordinator’s salary to $79,471, and eliminated funds for the vacant city parks director position until further investigation into Wagner’s demotion could be completed.

Brown and Gamso could not be reached Friday for comment on the resolution. Welmer’s office referred questions about the resolution to Pope.

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