From left, pictured are Hillsboro city council members Patty Day, Tom Eichinger and Greg Maurer, council clerk Kimberly Newman and council member Mark Middleton. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
From left, pictured are Hillsboro city council members Patty Day, Tom Eichinger and Greg Maurer, council clerk Kimberly Newman and council member Mark Middleton. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
It took Hillsboro City Council members and city administrators 51 minutes to discuss four resolutions on council’s Monday, May 11 agenda, with all four items of legislation ultimately approved.

Monday night’s discussion prompted council president Tom Eichinger to suggest that city auditor Alex Butler hold a separate meeting to provide “education for council members so everybody can better understand the fact that you’ve got an operating budget, basically, and then you’ve got funds that sit on their own and are able to be used for certain things.”

The first resolution, which was actually discussed twice, was a resolution “authorizing the safety and service director to prepare and submit an application to participate in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources NatureWorks grant program.”

Safety and Service Director Brianne Abbott said the deadline for the program is June 1.

“So this is simply to allow you to go ahead and apply for the money,” Eichinger said. “This does not require three readings.”

Eichinger asked if council had a motion, but council member Patty Day requested to ask a question. “Is it correct that we’re applying to possibly get around $30,000, but the city is having to commit to possible $60,000 or $90,000?” she asked.

“The county’s entire allocation is $30,000, so we probably wouldn’t apply for that whole amount,” Abbott said. “I believe it is a 75/25 grant.”

Day asked if the city also knew “what we’re going to use it for.”

“We don’t have a specific project in mind right now,” Abbott said. “We just want the approval to submit for the grant, if possible.”

Abbott added the parameters of the grant “could be a park, a trail or different items” of that type, but the city had not yet determined what project they’ll apply for.

Council member Mary Stanforth asked if the city had a “cap” for the 75-percent match, which public works superintendent Shawn Adkins and Abbott said was $90,000.

“Is it true that in order to submit an application, you have to have a project identified?” Eichinger asked.

“Yes,” Abbott said.

“So this is simply allowing them to go forward with seeing if they can identify a project, in the time frame,” Eichinger said. “If there is such a project, they can submit that at that time.”

At Abbott’s invitation, economic development coordinator Kirby Ellison also spoke about the NatureWorks program. She said the city has “used it as a matching grant before” and had NatureWorks funding for the pedestrian bridge project.

“There’s a couple different things, I think, that might be considered, but nothing’s nailed down yet,” she said. “That’s why they were just asking for permission to apply. We can come back, if awarded, and council can say it’s not worth it, or 75/25 is reasonable for the project.”

Day asked if Ellison could apply for “grants for road repair.” “We have such a problem with that,” Day said. “Not that I don’t love all the parks and nature things, but we could really use some repairs in the city.”

“No,” Ellison said, explaining that the city has “specific” funding from the gas tax “that comes down from the state to the city and is limited to what it can do,” plus paving from the Ohio Department of Transportation on state routes.

“They kind of look at that as it’s a maintenance issue,” Ellison said. “It’s something that we should be taking care of, so unfortunately, there’s not a lot of money for paving or fixing a roadway.”

Council member Claudia Klein said that “people on Facebook” are making fun of the city potholes.

As previously reported, council passed a resolution April 14 to authorize the safety and service director to bid, and accept the lowest and best bid, for a proposed street paving project for North East Street from Collins Avenue to state Route 138. Mayor Justin Harsha reminded council of that legislation.

“There are paving projects going on, it’s just we don’t have the money to pay for them all,” he said. “We’re trying with what we have.”

Council member Ann Morris asked about the city’s “normal participation” for a grant. “It seems like it’s normally 50/50,” she said.

Ellison said that they all vary, but NatureWorks is “always 75/25,” as are others. Others could be 50/50, 80/20, etc., she said.

At that point, the resolution died for lack of a motion. Approximately 33 minutes later, as Eichinger called for a motion to adjourn the meeting, discussion resumed after Adkins pointed out that the city could not apply for the grant without council authorizing the resolution.

“No approval was given,” Eichinger said. “At this point, it’s a dead item. It can be brought back to another council meeting.”

Adkins and Ellison both said, “It’s due June 1.”

Council member Greg Maurer asked if council would be “willing to discuss” the resolution again, after having heard, through other discussion, that the match money comes from the recreation fund.

“This is the one that the city has to pay 75 percent,” Day said.

Abbott pointed out that the city “can get multiple grants and use them” for the project. “We’re not anticipating spending a ton of money out of the fund because we don’t have a ton of money in the fund,” she said. “We don’t have a specific item on the table right now for this project, but if we’re able to come up with a good project to get a grant, Kirby does a great job for us getting grants.

“We would still have to come back to council and say ‘hey, this is the money that we received, this is the project we’re going to use it for, this is how we’ll match the grant.’ Without getting grant funding, we’re not going to see a lot of projects happen. You guys know as well as I do where our budget is.”

Adkins said that the city is researching pricing for “a couple project” ideas before committing to one for the application. “We’re probably going to apply for more grants to help take care of the 75 percent, like we did with the bridge,” he said. “It was several grants that helped pay for the pedestrian bridge.”

Adkins added that any match money will come from the unencumbered fund in the recreation fund and “once we get reimbursements, we’ll be right back at three hundred and some thousand dollars.”

“It did say you have to specify a project to apply for the grant,” Morris said.

“We will,” Adkins said. “We’ll specify in the grant, but we still have to bring it back to you guys to see if it’s worth funding or not.”

Harsha said that the city initially had a project in mind but later determined that would not work. “This just gives us the opportunity to write it and bring it back, show you what the project’s going to be, and at that point if you don’t want to, great,” the mayor said. “But if we don’t apply for grants and try to get some help for these projects, we’re just going to be standing still.”

Day said she had a problem with “spending 75 percent on a project when that money could be allocated to help with the roads.”

“That money cannot be moved out of the recreation fund,” Adkins said. ”That money is for recreation.”

Day asked if the law director was available to answer her question.

“I’m not a doctor, but I liken it to a certain blood type is the universal giver,” Butler said. “The general fund is the universal giver, but it’s not the universal receiver.”

“I guess I wasn’t aware that once it left the general fund, it could not be returned,” Day said.

“Shawn’s talked about the water and sewer funds have to be spent on water and sewer projects,” Eichinger said. “Recreation money has to be spent on recreation and park projects. The general fund can be used for whatever we budget it for.”

“I wasn’t aware that if we were moving money from the general fund [to the recreation fund], which we had been doing for four or five years in a row, $140,000 in a year, that we couldn’t take it back if we needed it and weren’t using it,” Day said.

Morris added that “we need to make sure for the future budgets that we don’t ‘park’ ourselves into being broke.”

“I will say, the North East Street project was not budgeted for,” Harsha said. “We’re trying to do some paving. We’re trying to use some money and get some projects done. It’s not like we’re just focusing on parks here.

“We’re trying to do a lot in the city aside from the parks, but last year when we were doing the budget, we didn’t think we were going to be doing any paving, any parks, any anything, period.”

Maurer moved to approve the resolution to allow the city to apply for a grant, which passed 5-1, with Day dissenting.

There were two other resolutions, both presented by the auditor, that also sparked numerous questions by council. The first was a resolution to “create an economic development department budget” within the city’s general fund.

The resolution proposed a budget including standard department line items, such as wages, insurance, expenses, supplies and equipment, as well as more department-specific items such as engineering, education, community enhancement, professional services, legal fees and insurance/blighted property.

The proposed budget would include the existing balances of the Economic Development and Community Enhancement funds, Butler said, totaling $46,706.60.

“In the city budget, the Economic Development department doesn’t exist,” Butler said. “It exists in reality, but in our budget, they don’t exist. They had one line item at the beginning of the year, which was in the Miscellaneous Government Department in the General Fund, and that line item is called Economic Development.

“Now that they have a lot of activities going and the department is active and getting some things accomplished, they have no budget to draw from other than in that one line item, so what I’d like to do is create their own budget.”

Butler said there is no additional money being appropriated to the department; rather, it would “take the money that they were originally allocated and split it out into several line items.”

“When they have expenses, I can more accurately charge it to the line item that is consistent with the charge,” he added.

Morris asked if there would be “any other expenses that will come up” as a result “in the future.”

“I cannot speak to the administration’s future plans for the department,” Butler said. “I can only speak to the numbers in the budget.

“That would be a decision of council, how much they want to fund to economic development in the future.”

Not every line item in the proposed budget resolution had money appropriated to it, as the auditor said for the rest of this year, the city was “likely going to use” the travel expense, engineering, education, community enhancement, professional services, legal fees, insurance/blighted property and office supplies line items. Butler told council that “the positions for that department are paid from other funds, but in the future, it may be more sensible to better track” the funds by using the new line items proposed.

Butler again clarified that “it’s not additional money,” just that it’s “more sensible line items that are easier to track and better for accounting purposes” instead of the one generic line item he has been using.

Morris also questioned the “wages” portion of the line item and whether the city would be “creating a new position.”

“Well, it has a department head now,” Butler said. “That would be Kirby Ellison.”

(As previously reported, Harsha announced in September that Ellison, a longtime grant writer for the city, accepted a new role as Hillsboro’s economic development coordinator.)

“It’s nothing additional?” Morris asked.

“Correct,” Butler said.

Eichinger called for a motion, and the resolution passed by a 6-0 vote.

The next resolution approved was presented “to supplement appropriations within the recreation fund of the city,” specifically increasing appropriations to the Buildings & Structures line item in the amount of $139,000.

According to Butler, that line item “was allocated zero dollars” in the budget. Overall, he said, the Recreation Fund has “approximately 320,000 unencumbered, unallocated dollars,” which is where the $139,000 would come from.

Eichinger asked what the funds will be used for.

“As you know, we have some projects that we’re doing in the parks,” Ellison said. “The main right now, and it’s finishing up, is the bridge and the parking lot at Liberty and Shaffer Park. Last fall, I did a requisition for like $256,000 for that project. That was not the whole cost of the project, but it was what was available in the fund.”

Ellison said that she “grants out” of the funds available.

“In previous years, the city had been taking $140,000 out of the general fund and putting it into the parks fund, and that was a matching fund for grants,” she said. “The way we’ve been working it is when we get a reimbursement, it goes back into recreation, and then we’re not pulling any more money from the general fund.

“We have some money — I think $40,000 was put in recreation from the general fund — but that was for utilities and things that aren’t grant-related. Right now, to pay my contractors when they submit more bills and stuff, I don’t have any green money allocated. It’s all in the fund.”

Ellison said it “got overlooked” when working on this year’s budget.

“It’s what we originally had asked to be appropriated out of recreation fund, which is not a general fund, into recreation,” she added. “The money’s there. It’s kind of like we just keep refunding it with reimbursed dollars.”

Butler reiterated that the money “was not appropriated in the original budget, but the money, the cash, so to speak, is there.”

Ellison said that the funds are “ultimately matching money” to pay for the pedestrian bridge project and paving.

“Once we appropriate this, then that’s completely paid for?” Maurer asked.

“Yes, because we’ll have reimbursements coming in,” Ellison said. “You guys shouldn’t have to deal with it again.”

Stanforth said she was “totally lost” about the $139,000 in relation to the “tight budget” approved by council. She asked, “If $139,000 was cut from the budget, then where did it go?”

Butler explained that the recreation fund has “non-substantial” revenue from farm ground rental and shelter house fees each year.

“In order to make things happen within the parks system, the recreation system, it has to be supplemented or funded by the general fund, because it doesn’t make any money,” Butler said. “In the past, there had been $140,000 transferred throughout the year, from the general fund into the recreation fund, to finance the activities that go on related to the park system.

“In an effort to keep the budget as tight as possible, we cut $100,000 of that $140 [thousand]. In this year’s budget, we are only authorized to transfer $40,000 into the recreation fund.”

However, Butler said, “there is a hefty unencumbered balance” in the recreation fund. The auditor read the end-of-year unencumbered balance at the conclusion of the past four years, including the highest total, $288,000, at the end of 2020.

“It has comparatively, to years past, a very hefty balance,” Butler said.

Klein asked how the fund was “growing so large.”

“Because money from the general fund over the last several years has been transferred into it,” Butler said.

“And it’s not being used for anything? It just gets put in that fund and left there?” Klein asked.

Ellison said, “no,” and Adkins explained that “a lot of it’s reimbursements” from completed recreation projects.

“The city will front the money to pay for projects, and then through grants and other arrangements, the money comes back to the city and stays in the fund,” Butler said.

Klein brought up the proposed resolution for the grant application, which at that point was still unapproved, and asked if that was the fund that would be used for matching funds.

“Yes,” Ellison said. “We have matching funds in the recreation fund. It’s not coming out of the general fund.”

Eichinger told council “the bottom line is the money is sitting there, non-general fund — it’s a separate fund — that can be used, that’s not encumbered in any way, and we simply want to move $139,000 into the recreation fund, the line item that you’ve got specified here, so that it can be used for fund money prior to us getting the reimbursement.”

Ellison said, “Yes,” and Butler said “the money “is there, and the legislation would make it available” to be used.

“Is there any more money that we can put places that we don’t know about?” Morris asked.

“I would say there’s not money you don’t know about because it is on the fund report that you receive,” Butler said.

“You know what I mean,” Morris said. “Something that’s not designated already for something else in the budget, to clean up some of the roads that we keep hearing about.

“Is that something you can use for that or can’t use for that?”

“Not from the recreation fund,” Butler said.

“But it’s not in the recreation fund,” Morris said. “It’s in the general fund right now.”

“No, it’s in the recreation fund right now,” Ellison said.

“So it’s already in recreation and we’re moving it from recreation to recreation?” Morris asked.

“No,” Butler said. “It’s like there’s this much money in the fund, but this much money has been put into the budget authorized to spend. We’re asking you to pull from the big bucket that’s there and make it available to spend.”

Maurer asked if the recreation fund had line items, which Butler said it did, with various line items “pulling from” the unencumbered fund.

Day asked how the city was paying to repair vandalism to the parks, which was discussed earlier in the meeting. Adkins said that it largely comes from the recreation budget.

“So it’s coming out of your recreation budget, which is a different line item than what we’re looking at here?” Day asked.

“No,” Adkins said. “The recreation fund is a savings account. I’ll make it simple. It’s a savings account.”

Ellison said that due to “miscommunication,” the money was not allocated to the Buildings & Structures line item in this year’s budget.

“It’s money in the bank,” she said. “We’re just not showing it anywhere to spend it.

“We just need your permission to spend money that’s in the bank.”

Klein asked “why the city is putting money into Shaffer Park,” which also has a line item in the recreation fund. Butler said that line item is solely used to pay insurance fees.

“Just because a department exists in the budget does not mean it’s funded,” he said.

Eichinger again called for a motion, and the resolution passed, 6-0.

The final resolution on the agenda passed with minimal discussion, also by a 6-0 vote. This was a resolution to authorize a then and now purchase order for a flood insurance invoice.

For more from Monday night’s meeting, see the story at https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/New-city-sign-continues-to-draw-criticism-council-hears-report-on-park-vandalism-/2/20/68592.