Two things happened last Tuesday that struck me as separate but completely connected.
First, fierce journalism advocate and Twitter friend Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post published yet another brilliant piece about the end days of journalism, “What Happens to Democracy When Local Journalism Dries Up?”
In it, she revisits the closing of Youngstown’s Vindicator and the rise of Mahoning Matters. Sullivan recalls a quote from Bertram de Souza, the Youngstown Vindicator’s final editorial page editor, who told her in 2019 that Youngstown “is absolutely the kind of place that needs watchdog reporting.”
Also on Tuesday, Mahoning County Auditor Ralph Meacham issued a news release titled “Auditor Releases Oak Hill Renaissance Center Financials” in which he promised a “clear, accurate, and objective picture of the impact of Oak Hill Renaissance Center on County finances to date” while purporting to analyze the costs of operating the county’s headquarters.
And some local media outlets accepted his methodology and regurgitated his words seemingly with little or no watchdog reporting.
The county acquired its headquarters in 2006 amid some controversy. The county was paying the Cafaro Co. approximately $1.3 million a year for rent, utilities, repairs, maintenance and security at Garland Plaza in that era. The commercial real estate lease put rents and all upkeep, maintenance, etc. on the backs of the county.
The county housed the Department of Job and Family Services there and even had a separate lease at one time to house the county’s Child Support Enforcement Agency at the Erie Terminal. The prevailing thought at the time was to get everybody under one roof and not pay someone else for rent and maintenance. Also, the thought was to breathe new life into a huge medical complex that was being abandoned — and not let it fall into disarray and become a haven for criminal activity. It was anticipated in 2006 that demolition costs alone would be $5 million.
Yet, on Tuesday, Meacham told The Vindicator he thinks owing $11 million on the building is a lot after 15 years. “Its operating expenses of $27.4 million have been $5.6 million more than its operating revenue of $21.8 million since the county bought the building in 2006,” the story declared.
Cue the ominous music, right?
Because a powerful, influential business was going to be out that kind of money, the Valley was plunged into years of acrimony and investigations and indictments. I certainly am not here today to rekindle old debates. Yet, for Meacham to isolate one county expense in deference to other expenses and realities is absolutely a deranged portrayal of public trust. It’s about as “clear, accurate, and objective picture” as a Picasso piece. Think: “Artist and His Model.”
Does Meacham really believe owing $11 million on the building after 15 years is a problem? That would be like a couple buying a $150,000 house with a 30-year mortgage at 4% interest and after 15 years realizing that despite paying $96,814.89, they still owe $101,435.03 and declaring THAT a problem, while ignoring benefits like tax breaks, not paying rent (i.e. someone else’s mortgage) and not sleeping in the snow.
And then we have cold, hard math: $27.4 million has been $5.6 million more than its operating revenue, right? Not only is that a weird metric to judge a property but bear this in mind: In 2006, the county spent $1.3 million annually on Garland Plaza. Over the past 15 years, that would have totaled $19.5 million just at Garland Plaza, before equalizing spending to 2021 dollars and adding in major expenses that surely would have occurred at that dilapidated facility in the past 180 months. Then we have to factor in the consolidation of other leases like the one at Erie Terminal.
I’m no CPA, but I do know that all could easily overtake $24.7 million. And the county would own nothing and no advantages like better connectivity between departments, depreciation, etc.
Had the county stayed that particular course, the county would likely be worse off today. And Meacham knows it.
Then we have Meacham’s assertion: “Current occupancy is 52%. Attempts to lease additional space [have] been hindered by the high cost of renovating to make it suitable for a tenant.”
High costs or bad public policy? After the Oakhill purchase, some leases were eliminated to consolidate services, like the board of elections moving from the old Uptown Sears store to Oakhill. Other anticipated changes, like consolidating services in Austintown or the location of the new dog pound, were met with purely political obstacles.
On the dog pound, I had a remarkable exchange one year with Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti during a Youngstown Vindicator editorial board meeting when I inquired why the county did not place its proposed dog pound at Oakhill, instead of seeking new property, tearing an old structure down, remediating the site and, eventually, spending $4 million.
Rimedio-Righetti looked me square in the eye and said I was crazy for asserting that you mix people and animals at the same facility. I responded that we do that every day. We call these “homes.” I still wonder if she planned to operate the pound with robots ...
So, the county had opportunities to consolidate and chose to do otherwise, and now the auditor complains about low occupancy. Real crisis or manufactured crisis? The answer is obviously more complicated than he allows.
Now, I like Meacham and I think he’s always been fair and he’s taken my phone calls even when he knows I’m calling to vociferously complain. And I know politicians often have to play to constituencies. But when I called him Wednesday and asked him to redo his chart from his news release that took operating revenue and operating expense to create Oakhill’s net operating expenditures over revenues and apply that same concept for the McGuffey Mall/Garland Plaza presuming status quo over the past 15 years, he politely declined.
“I would say, we own this now. What do we do going forward? ... I’m smart enough not to go back to Garland and all those politics,” he told me.
Sure. Which is why he picked this particular scab to scratch.
He also reminded me that many of the items I sought in my voluminous records request that I gave him last week — i.e. “I request the same accounting/financial analysis as performed on the Oakhill facility to be [done] on every county-owned property.” — are outside the bounds of Ohio Sunshine Law as he is not compelled to create records for me.
I responded there’s also no such providence in Ohio law directing him to create an isolated, skewed, inarticulate snapshot of spending as he did for Oakhill. But, see, this process allows him to control the debate by picking and choosing items to spotlight and generate hysterical headlines.
Aside from the Vindicator’s “Auditor: Oak Hill drains finances,” there was this gem of a headline from The Business Journal: “Auditor: Oakhill Renaissance Place Still Bleeding Millions of County Dollars.” I can hear the clicks from here.
Sullivan said in her Washington Post column last Tuesday: “The problem, going forward, is that when it comes to revealing malfeasance, you don’t know what you don’t know: If there’s no one to keep public officials honest, citizens might never find out how their faith is being broken and their tax dollars squandered.” I am not saying Meacham is dishonest, to be clear. But we can’t give him a pass in this episode simply because he’s an upgrade over his predecessor and he maintains a folksy, aw-shucks, Burt Mustin nature.
In my remaining weeks, let’s see what Meacham comes up with in terms of my records requests for all leases, maintenance spending, etc. He could simply issue a statement like, “Mark is right; had the county stuck with the McGuffey Mall/Garland Plaza choice for the past 15 years, things would be as bad or worse.”
Some folks harboring old grudges might not like it, but it’s the truth. And maybe that could lead to a discussion about moving forward, as he maintained he originally intended.
But skewed facts and logic and purposeful omissions that inspire overwrought headlines should not lead to taxpayers funding a shiny new Mahoning County headquarters. And Valley media should be more circumspect about such auditor efforts.
— Mark Sweetwood is local editor of Mahoning Matters for a couple more weeks.