Pictured, from left, are Hillsboro City Council members Mary Stanforth and Tom Eichinger; economic development coordinator Kirby Ellison; Hillsboro City Council members Ann Morris and Greg Maurer; and public works superintendent Shawn Adkins. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured, from left, are Hillsboro City Council members Mary Stanforth and Tom Eichinger; economic development coordinator Kirby Ellison; Hillsboro City Council members Ann Morris and Greg Maurer; and public works superintendent Shawn Adkins. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Members of the Hillsboro Finance Committee recently began discussing a suggestion to lower council’s sign-off level on administrative purchases from $50,000 to $25,000 per purchases.

As previously reported, council member Patty Day made a suggestion for possible legislation to that effect during the Aug. 9 Hillsboro city council meeting.

“Recently, I had done some review and spoke with Governor DeWine’s office,” Day said at that meeting. “The statute that we currently have is to allow administrative executive spending to be at $50,000 per purchase. I was informed by the governor’s aide that fields questions that for many of the cities in the state of Ohio, that max is $25,000.

“I would like to request respectfully that this be moved to a committee to be discussed and reviewed.”

She said she had spoken to city law director Fred Beery about this already.

Council president Tom Eichinger placed the matter in the finance committee and asked Day to “share Mr. Beery’s input, “along with your input, to that committee so it can have a full review before any actions are taken.”

During the finance committee’s Aug. 26 meeting at the city building, the three finance committee members — chair Mary Stanforth, Greg Maurer and Ann Morris — were joined by Eichinger, Hillsboro public works superintendent Shawn Adkins and Hillsboro economic development coordinator Kirby Ellison. Neither Day nor Beery were able to attend.

No action was taken, but all four council members shared their opinions and various questions, as did the two city administrators in attendance.

Stanforth began the meeting by explaining that currently, council doesn’t “have to have a review of administrative purchases if they are less than $50,000.”

“It was suggested that we might want to change it to $25,000,” Stanforth said. “Shawn is going to tell us why that may or may not be a good idea.”

Stanforth invited Adkins to speak, as he explained that numerous purchases, some of which may be emergencies — such as pumps, chemicals, etc. — fall between the $25,000 to $50,000 range. In that case, he said, they would often have to make purchases without prior approval from council, which would lead to other problems.

Even if it’s not an emergency, Adkins said there is a potential for special council meetings that will need to be scheduled throughout the month if council has to sign off on every purchase over $25,000.

“A lot of stuff we do order is over $25,000,” he said. “We’ll have to have a special council meeting if we don’t have it [the order] ready at the time of council.”

“So basically, there’s a lot of things between $25 [thousand] and $50 [thousand],” Stanforth said.

Adkins agreed, saying that the spending over $50,000 — which is what currently comes before council — is “usually either for a project or something we know is coming up.”

Stanforth asked if Adkins could give them an idea of “the maximum purchase orders” in one month that would fall in this window.

Adkins said he knew of one month where “the plant itself had three POs” between $25,000 and $50,000. However, in answer to a question from Maurer, he said that “most of that stuff is all figured into the budget” and is not outside that realm.

“So it’s basically just approving the purchase, not having to move funds or ask for more money or anything that,” Stanforth said. “My problem is it’s hard enough sometimes to get everybody there at council once a month, with working and traveling. I would assume that when this comes up, it’s something that needs to be handled something pretty quickly, not something you can wait a week and see who can make it to the meeting.

“Most of the time, yes,” Adkins said. “If it’s something that’s a real emergency, we’re probably going to have to do it anyway. If we’ve got a sewer running, the EPA’s not going to care if it’s $25,000 or over, or if we have a meeting to OK it.”

Morris asked what Adkins would do if they had an emergency and the purchase was $51,000.

“If it’s an emergency, I’m still going to put it through, and then bring it to you,” he said.

According to Adkins, other purchases that fall within that threshold are city vehicles, various operating supplies, street lighting and excavation or demolition contracts. Morris said that for those purchases “you’ll know within a month — like if you bought two pickup trucks, you would know before” the council meeting.

Ellison told her that for those purchases, “they would have told you about when they did the budget.”

“Not if one breaks,” Morris said. “You might buy one during the year.”

Adkins said that for another example, he has had to purchase more fire hydrants than anticipated this year, with varying expenses as some were handled by insurance and some weren’t.

“I’m just going by what Patty had come up with because of the size of the city,” Morris said. “I can see where Cincinnati’s would be $50,000, but it’s like Hillsboro and Cincinnati and other big cities are not comparable.”

Eichinger said that there is an “issue” with that logic that was presented by Beery.

“I know what Patty was told by the governor’s office, and I think we need to find out which cities are that are less than 50 [thousand] and whether they’ve done it on the whole budget or on selected parts of the budget,” he said. “Fred stated it with Patty also that the legislation at the ORC level seems to be rather stern about the $50,000 number, and he’s concerned that council may not have the authority to modify that downward or upward.

“I just think that’s something that needs to be checked out.”

Stanforth’s input on the city size argument is that regardless of population, “your supply costs are going to be the same across the board, I would think.” Maurer also pointed out that in larger cities, these elected positions are “full-time jobs,” where they could potentially approve projects without the difficultly of scheduling a special meeting.

Ellison asked if council is considering modifying how the city is “cutting checks, or the process of purchase orders?”

“Good question,” Stanforth said. “I just thought it was the amount that was all we had to worry about — supplies up to, or merchandise or whatever, up to $50,000, and just having it come to council and us OKing it.

“To me, I think it’s an extra step that doesn’t need to be taken. I think it should stay at $50,000, because I can’t see trying to come and get meetings together.”

At that point, a back-and-forth began between Morris and Stanforth as Morris again brought up the controversial digital sign on North High Street at the former site of the Colony Theater.

The sign, which was installed March 31, was paid for with CARES Act funds. The project cost $48,340, and the contractor used was Chad Abbott Signs, for $30,000. As previously reported, city administrators have faced allegations of a conflict of interest and criticism of the timing of various decisions and how the decisions were made, among other things. There have been discussions, and in some cases debates, at the April, May and July city council meetings, all of which have been reported on in detail already.

Morris said at the finance committee meeting that she thought Day’s suggestion was based on concern “for the taxpayers, to try and watch the budget.”

“If it’s already included in the budget, there shouldn’t be a problem,” Stanforth said.

“But it’s not always included in the budget,” Morris said.

“But it’s rare,” Stanforth said. “I don’t think it happens that often.”

“The sign downstairs wasn’t rare,” Morris said.

“No, we’re not going to get into the sign,” Stanforth said. “That’s enough.”

“I think that's what I think jump-started it,” Morris said. “I really do. It wasn’t my idea. That’s what I just think kicked it off. That would have made that come to council to approve it and then go forward, because it was almost $50,000. I think that’s what it was. Because that wasn’t in budget.”

“Well, no, because it was done with COVID money,” Stanforth said. “But that’s history.”

Stanforth changed the subject, asking Maurer his opinion on “changing from $50,000 to $25,000.”

Maurer said he wanted to wait until Beery made a determination “to make sure that we’re following the ORC” and said he didn’t think they should have to meet for “non-budgetary” purchases.

“It’s something that we don’t need to be involved in,” Maurer said. “We don’t need to add more red tape, nor more bureaucracy, and make it harder for the city to function.”

Maurer added that he didn’t want to “go further” until Beery determined whether council even can lower the threshold to $25,000. If they can lower it, he suggested that they hold a meeting with Beery to determine if they can “make it so that it’s specific, that it’s not creating havoc for the departments of the city that have already been budgeted.”

Stanforth then invited Morris to share her thoughts.

“I think we need some more facts about it,” Morris said. “I’m for reducing it, just because of what’s happened. I just think we should be stewards of the money and then we know where it’s going, but I totally understand that if it’s approved in the budget, we’ve already discussed it.”

Ellison told the committee that currently, for “purchase orders over $50,000, we typically include the resolution or ordinance pertaining to” that purchase.

“We have to do that, or the auditor’s office can’t give us the purchase order to begin the transaction,” she said.

In addition to her question earlier in the meeting regarding changing the process for issuing checks, Ellison said she had concerns that council would be called on to approve other standard purchase orders, including electricity, other utilities, insurance, salaries, etc.

“When you change it like that that, our demand on council would be people in the auditor’s office questioning whether we were allowed to do something,” Ellison said. “Then you’re going to have to meet even if you believe it’s beyond your parameters so we can have permission to go ahead and get a purchase order and do the work.

“It could become a situation where all we’re doing is paperwork, all you’re doing is paperwork, especially at different times of the year. You couldn’t do a blanket PO at the beginning of the year to handle utilities because it would be above that cost.”

In response to the committee discussing possibly limiting the approval to items not included in the budget, Ellison pointed out that regardless of amount, that would generally come before council anyway.

“Usually if it’s not in the budget that you approve at the beginning of the year, we’re coming to you to ask for an increase in appropriations, a transfer,” Ellison said. “That happens a lot, even if it’s not $25,000 or $50,000. We just don’t have the money, so we come for an increase in appropriations or a transfer, so you already have that control.”

Eichinger agreed. “Typically, any unappropriated money has to come before council, so that’s covered,” he said.

Eichinger asked if city auditor Alex Butler could “provide a report that shows the number of POs that are in that gap between $25,000 and $50,000.”

“I’m sure he can,” Adkins said. “It has changed a little bit because now, you’re not allowed to increase POs.”

Stanforth said that she would speak to Beery and Butler before scheduling the next committee meeting. Morris suggested that Stanforth should also ask Day if she was wanting council to have oversight over “extras or every single thing” over $25,000.

Until “we figure out what’s going on,” Stanforth said the finance committee would not present any recommendations to council.