If Taxpayers Are Buying, Would You Expect Free Drinks?

"Isn't that surprising?" Dusty Rhodes asks. Before you know what the question means, you have to understand Rhodes is the Hamilton County Auditor. Hamilton County has finished its first audit of ta

"Isn't that surprising?" Dusty Rhodes asks.

Before you know what the question means, you have to understand Rhodes is the Hamilton County Auditor. Hamilton County has finished its first audit of tax funds spent by the Cincinnati Zoo. But Hamilton County's audit wasn't done by the Hamilton County Auditor. In fact, the Hamilton County Auditor didn't even get a copy of the county's audit.

"Isn't that surprising?," Rhodes asks.

Maybe not. After all, no one likes to hear, "I told you so."

The staff of the Department of Administrative Services and an outside auditor have turned up more than $13,000 in improper expenditures — meals at Hooters restaurant, undocumented travel, picnic tables built by a zoo employee on a special contract and more.

This sounds exactly like what Rhodes warned against three years ago, when he tried to get county commissioners to have the county auditor audit the zoo.

"(The commissioners) are effectively handing the money over to the zoo and policing themselves," Rhodes told CityBeat in 1998. "I hope something doesn't fall through the cracks." ("County Reviews Zoo," May 14-20, 1998).

Back then, Commissioner John Dowlin said it couldn't happen.

"We're the ones holding the cards," Dowlin said in 1998. "If they will not agree (to the conditions), they'll get no tax money."

That's exactly the opposite of what Dowlin says now that the audit is in.

"It's really a question of their not knowing our demands and their saying, 'This is how zoos operate,' " Dowlin says.

How this zoo operates, the audit shows, is without written policies on the use of fuel or on reimbursement for personal use of cellular phones. Employees spend $2,100 in petty cash, with the only documentation a note on a scratch pad saying the money was for mice.

"My major complaint for years is it's been so loose around here you could drive a truck right through it," Rhodes says. "This levy money has been a veritable smorgasbord for people to take from."

The audit of tax money given the zoo involved a random sampling of four months in 1999 and four in 2000, according to Joe Huster, management systems supervisor in the Department of Administrative Services. The zoo has reimbursed the county $13,338 and agreed to develop formal policies suggested by the county.

"There's nothing scandalous about any of this," says Jack Huelsman, associate director of the zoo. "There was nothing done of an unethical or illegal nature. This is a matter of following proper procedure."

The county gave the zoo about $6.2 million in property-tax proceeds in 1999 and the same amount in 2000, Huster says. The contract with the zoo lists four areas for which tax money can be used: the animal department, animal health, horticulture and maintenance. The zoo thought the trips to Hooters and gifts to visiting dignitaries fit into one of those categories, Huelsman says.

"Especially with the European and Asian zoos, they bring gifts, and it's culturally expected that we give gifts to them and take them to dinner," he says. "We consider that part of what's required to take care of the animal collection. The county does not reimburse for alcoholic beverages. We didn't know that. We will adapt."

The county has told the zoo to review all tax-related expenditures for 1999 and 2000 and identify any more that are inappropriate, Huster says. The county will then do its own audit of both years to see if it finds anything the zoo missed, he says.

Dowlin says he expects more inappropriate expenditures will turn up.

"I'm sympathetic with their saying, 'We go to other zoos, and they take us here,' " Dowlin says. "Maybe if I came from Jakarta, I'd say, 'Gee, I want to go to Hooters.' I think they're going to find, with their own self-audit, more expenditures that don't meet our requirements. It was disappointing to us, but they thought that certain expenditures were satisfactory. But it's a positive development that they say they'll do better in the future."

Rhodes said he believes the audit is a good start, especially because the county used an independent auditor to assist the Department of Administrative Services.

"I think they did take our advice on that," Rhodes says. "I'm glad they're finally coming around."

Isn't that surprising?

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.

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