County spending your tax dollars on parties, dinner

CLEVELAND – The Investigator, Tom Meyer, opened up Cuyahoga County's checkbook to see how it has spent your hard-earned tax dollars. What he found might make you more than a little angry.

From lavish parties to gourmet dinners, you paid for it but never saw it.

Action News found out that we're paying for county employees to eat all kinds of food. At a deli last year, they gobbled up $18,000 worth of goodies and billed it as a meeting expense. That means you paid for it.

Parties are just one way your tax dollars are being spent. After digging through piles of county records, The Investigator found out that taxpayers are picking up the tab on all kinds of food, including pizzas, cheesecakes, pumpkin pies and peach cobbler.

This is happening at a time when county commissioners say revenues have taken a nosedive. So, Action News went to the county commissioners for answers.

"It certainly raises questions," commissioner Tim McCormack said. "We are in the greatest financial crisis of my lifetime."

So, why have a $3,000 brunch at the splashy Windows on the River? The Board of Mental Retardation spent your money to feed and honor volunteer workers.

Talk about fancy! The Renaissance Hotel has hosted a number of swanky events, including last year's Board of Mental Health annual dinner that cost $10,000. It's no wonder that state auditors ripped the agency in question for poor oversight of spending.

"If we keep spending this way, we will run out of funds in the coming year," McCormack said.

When The Investigator found out that $19,000 was paid last year for county officials to watch videotapes, he started asking questions. Mary Denihan, public relations officer for the Child Support Enforcement Agency, said that the money was used to buy dozens of tapes of Action News and other news programs.

When asked why her agency needed the news media to tell them how to do their job, she denied that was the case.

"I need to know the news media's perspective on stories," Denihan said.

When The Investigator asked why a county employee couldn't simply record the shows on a VCR and save most of that money, Denihan wouldn't directly respond to the question.

"I'm not going to answer that since the money has already been spent," she said.

Your money has already been spent on a bike rack tucked away behind the county building. A top aide to county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones went to central services to have it built. In the four weeks that Action News checked, no one used it, not even the aide because he stopped riding his bike to work.

"If we purchased a bike rack to accommodate one person, that was a poor purchase," McCormack said.

Has anyone ever noticed the plants at the Justice Center?

"Plants? There aren't any," one Justice Center visitor said.

Despite the fact that they obviously don't stick out in the minds of visitors, the county spent $11,000 last year to maintain the plants located in the building.

"That's an expenditure that has been stopped, as well it should have," McCormack said.

A payroll error also cost you cash. Former county employee Gregory Outlaw got an extra $10,000 in his paycheck by mistake. The county mailed a certified letter to Outlaw in June, trying to get the money back. So far, that has not happened.

Another example of taxpayers paying too much is nothing to say cheese about. The county spent at least $47,000 on photographs last year. A group photo of judges alone cost nearly $500.

Trophy shop owner Beth Paddock admitted that the county must love awards.

"They're a great customer," she said.

Action News found hundreds of dollars of purchase orders for trophies and plaques. The store said that the county spends between $8 and $25,000 a year.

Thanks to taxpayers, some unidentified county employees have some nice casual wear from Lands' End, also. The employee who placed the order person wasn't talking, except to say, you paid for it.

"The instances you've cited … we absolutely must put an end to any of those practices," McCormack said.

As taxpayers, we can and should expect a more skilled county workforce to serve us. Last year alone, the county spent nearly a $100,000 on training and seminars, and you paid for it!

McCormack said that the county must do a lot more to control spending. He said that progress is being made, but right now, it's not good enough.