Mayor Keith Gaskin announced Wednesday he is moving closer to formally asking the city council to approve a forensic audit of city finances.
In a press conference held at City Hall, Gaskin said he has been speaking with representatives of two firms with forensic audit expertise and plans to have them present to the council at its Oct. 5 meeting. He said he will publicly identify the two firms prior to that meeting so citizens can “do their own research.”
The mayor said he will call for a vote on whether to hire one of the two firms at the council’s Oct. 19 meeting.
“I want to give the council and the citizens plenty of time to take in the information those two firms give us,” Gaskin said.
Gaskin has touted his plans to ask for a forensic audit of city finances since shortly after he took office July 1. The city ran deficits of more than $800,000 each in two consecutive years during Mayor Robert Smith’s last term, and in 2020 former Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to embezzling nearly $290,000 in city funds between 2016 and 2018.
“If we uncover criminal activity, we will follow that lead. We’re looking for criminal activity when it comes to where the issues were earlier and making sure everything has been uncovered from that time,” Gaskin said. “We’re not doing this to prove there was criminal activity somewhere else.”
A forensic audit would be more detailed and specialized than the city’s annual audit, Gaskin said. His plan is to propose an audit that looks back at the last seven years, including spending across all departments and contracts with third-party businesses and organizations.
Depending on the scope and expertise of the firm hired, Gaskin said a forensic audit could cost the city anywhere from $25,000 to “well over $100,000.”
“We don’t want to go down rabbit holes. We’re not trying to point a finger or accuse anybody of anything,” Gaskin said. “We’re just trying to get a clear understanding of the finances of the city and what can be put in place in future to make sure we don’t have these questions we’ve been having for many years.”
Speaking to The Dispatch on Wednesday night, Vice Mayor Joseph Mickens, who represents Ward 2, said he understands why the mayor wants the forensic audit, but he doesn’t know yet whether he will support it.
The city approved a tighter than expected budget for Fiscal Year 2022, after a $1.5 million clerical error was discovered in the original budget draft. To fix it, the city cut more than $1 million in planned equipment purchases and facility upgrades, as well as plans to fund employee raises.
“I would be asking for the same thing if I were in his position,” Mickens said. “But what is it going to cost? Where are we going to get the money? Those are two key components and (answers to those questions) will determine whether he gets that audit.”
If the council approves the audit, Gaskin said he will make the results public once it is complete.
On Wednesday, Gaskin expressed some disappointment in the council’s vote Tuesday to earmark $1.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for one-time employee stipends.
In fact, he said he was “disappointed” to even see it on the agenda after he had said publicly the previous week he was serious about looking into ways to reward employees with some of those funds.
With Tuesday’s vote, the council set aside enough to fund one-time premium pay stipends of up to $5,000 for each of the city’s 260 employees from federal COVID-19 relief money. Both Gaskin and City Attorney Jeff Turnage had asked councilmen to table the matter until there was clear legal counsel on how — and to whom — stipends can be issued.
The city will receive roughly $5.6 million in ARPA funds.
Gaskin said on Wednesday he doesn’t want the city to “hem itself in” on a certain amount for stipends because he wants the ARPA funds to have the greatest long-term impact possible for the city. That’s among the reasons the city plans to hire a consultant to advise it on ARPA spending and compliance.
“This money we will be receiving from ARPA, and the reason we’re being very careful about how we determine how to spend it, is that this money could have a generational impact on Columbus,” Gaskin said. “… In my opinion part of the reason we’re in this particular situation we’re in right now — as far as not being able to award raises as we had hoped — is because of decisions that have been made in the past. I’m not just saying in the previous administration. I’m (also) looking at administrations prior to that.
“This is a serious time for serious minds, in my opinion. We cannot be making decisions on emotional thoughts,” he added. “We can’t be making decisions from comments we see on Facebook. We owe it to the citizens and our employees to make the kinds of decisions that will have a long-term impact on them in a positive way.”
Mickens doesn’t see the city as “hemmed in” from Tuesday’s vote and he made no guarantee he would support $5,000 stipends for all employees. He does, however, support giving some type of stipend from ARPA.
“The money is just earmarked. That is all,” Mickens said. “We can’t do anything until we hear back from the consultant and legal counsel. … We want to make sure the employees we have, who have been working diligently for a year and a half during this COVID pandemic, are rewarded for that. … That may mean we spend, maybe, $500,000 of that money, not necessarily the whole (earmarked portion of) $1.3 million.”
Mickens on mayor: ‘Honeymoon is wearing off’
On Wednesday, Mickens, the longest-tenured council member serving, leveled some criticism toward some of Gaskin’s actions in his first few months in office, particularly what he sees as a lack of clear direction from the administration and a lack of communication between the mayor and council members.
He said he appreciates the mayor’s passion and believes he is “doing a good job.” But he added, “the honeymoon is wearing off.”
“We need a plan for what we’re going to do,” Mickens said. “We’ve been hearing about how we’re going to make this plan and that plan, but I don’t see anything in front of the council for us to vote up or down. Tell us what you want. You’re the mayor.”
Mickens said he and other council members routinely learn about city issues from local media stories or through the mayor’s social media posts. For example, he said, talk of a forensic audit has been brewing for months, but he didn’t learn until Wednesday that Gaskin planned to go back seven years.
While interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. does have some contact with councilmen to keep them in the loop, Mickens said, there is little contact from the mayor.
“We want to hear from the mayor,” Mickens said. “I think he needs to develop better communication with every councilman. I think things would go smoother for him if he did.”
The Dispatch attempted to reach Gaskin this morning for a response to Mickens’ criticisms, but he had not returned call or text messages by press time.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.