Source: Sherman Publications

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Concerns over DDA director’s spending prompt discussion

by CJ Carnacchio

November 30, 2011

How much money can the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) director spend without board approval? Which expenditures are appropriate and which are not?

These questions, spawned by the concerns of some officials, were discussed at last week's DDA meeting and will be brought up again at the board's December meeting.

"I'm tired of seeing the money fly out of here," said Oxford Township Supervisor Bill Dunn, who serves on the DDA board and initiated the spending discussion.

Dunn cited three examples of spending on the DDA's November bill run that bothered him:

n $2,200 for framing work performed by ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame;

n $479 for refreshments for the Nov. 16 open house event regarding the streetscape project.

n $41 for lunch for Oxford DDA Director Madonna Van Fossen, Oxford DDA member Anna Taylor and the Lake Orion DDA director.

With regard to the framing work, Van Fossen explained this involved "eight to 10" certificates and awards the DDA had received over the years from Main Street Oakland County and other entities. She got them framed so they could displayed.

"I don't remember this board authorizing that (expenditure)," Dunn said.

Van Fossen indicated she spoke with DDA Chairman Kevin Stephison prior to having the work done.

Stephison said he knew the work was going to be done, but he was not aware of the total cost. He explained to the board that Van Fossen can spend up to $1,500 for "emergency and last-minute things." This amount can increase to $3,000 with approval from three of the four DDA board officers.

"Framing the DDA certificates probably wouldn't fall under that," Dunn said.

"No," Stephison replied. "I had hoped and expected to have seen a bid."

Stephison explained that any purchase that's not already part of the DDA budget must be bid out. He said anything over $500 requires three bids and it's been that way since at least 2006.

Van Fossen indicated no bids were sought for the framing. "We just took it to him because he's a local business owner," she said.

"That isn't the procedure," said DDA member Chuck Schneider. "There's a procedure for spending money. You cannot just arbitrarily give money to somebody. You have to get it bid out. I don't care what it is."

The other spending issue of concern revolved around using tax dollars to purchase food for both public events, like the Nov. 16 streetscape open house held at ArtCapsule, and private lunches.

Dunn said the DDA should "not (be) in the business" of spending tax money "for parties" and "to feed people."

"I'm getting tired of seeing (this) on the bills," he said. "If I did this in the township, they would skin me."

Dunn was particularly upset about the DDA paying for lunches. "It's just not appropriate," he said. "In the (12) years, I've been supervisor, I've turned in one lunch bill and I meet a lot of important people.

"You can't take this money and spend it that way . . . I'm not trying to be a butthead, but I don't want to see it happen anymore."

Schneider agreed about the lunch expenditures. "You're using my tax dollars to pay (for) your lunch," he said. "That isn't right – not right at all."

Schneider also believes that given the DDA is spending $52,500 to develop a streetscape plan, the two consulting firms who were awarded the contract to do that work should have bought the food for the open house.

"If they want to have a successful review of their presentation, they're a real good suspect to buy the food because they got $52,500," he said. "Why wouldn't we ask them, if they think refreshments are appropriate, to provide them? They're getting $52,500."

Van Fossen defended her food-related expenditures as beneficial to the DDA.

With regard to the refreshments for the streetscape open house, she indicated they helped lead to a well-attended and successful event.

"If you want people to participate, there are two things you need to do – you need to make it fun and you need to give them a reason to come," Van Fossen explained.

She said the "minor expense" for food is worth it when compared to the value of having more than 70 people attend the open house and give their input on a plan the DDA is spending $52,500 to develop for the downtown's benefit.

"We need to spend some money to get people to come," she said.

VanFossen indicated the firms hired to develop the streetscape plan were "blown away" by the open house attendance and told her "they have never had a community demonstrate so much interest."

"They could not tell us enough (about) what a great job we did," she said.

As for the $41 lunch bill Van Fossen submitted for herself, Taylor and the Lake Orion DDA director, she indicated that too was well worth the expense.

Van Fossen explained the lunch was used as an opportunity to "pick (the Lake Orion DDA director's) brain" about went "right" and "wrong" with regard to that downtown's new streetscape.

"We got some very valuable information that will help us," she said.

Van Fossen noted that she doesn't make a habit of having the DDA pay for meals.

"I don't just do it all of the time – submit lunch or dinner receipts," she said.

But when she does seek reimbursement, she believes it's justified.

"I want to remind the board that I believe it was two years ago, I voluntarily took a cut in pay to stay in this job," Van Fossen said. "And I love this job, but I work an average of 55 to 50 hours a week and I get paid for 40 hours a week, so I personally – no disrespect – have no qualms about my submitting a $41.37 bill to the board for lunch.

"I understand it's the taxpayers' money and I understand that we need to be careful, (but) I believe that my judgment in the past . . . has been very, very careful (when it comes to) what I spend, when and where."

Some other DDA board members agreed with Dunn and Schneider's concerns about the spending.

"I do agree with Mr. Dunn," said DDA member Tom Benner, who's also president of the village council. "We have the responsibility of watching over taxpayer dollars. If it is not a budgeted item, then I feel it is unnecessary."

He suggested that if the DDA board believes Van Fossen needs a "fund" to buy lunches or food for events, then it should be a line item in the budget, which is approved by the DDA board and village council.

Benner also agreed with Schneider's point that the consulting firms should have bought the refreshments for the open house since they're being paid by the DDA.

DDA member Ed Hunwick agreed as well.

"That's just the way the program works – we're their customer," he said. "I would expect that they would reciprocate."

The only DDA board member who expressed any disagreement with the concerns raised by Dunn and Schneider was Don Sherman who warned them about being "penny wise and pound foolish."

To Dunn, who did not attend the streetscape open house because he was out of town, Sherman said, "If you would have attended the event, if you had been in town, you may have a different position."

"No, I wouldn't," Dunn replied.

"I'm saying if you had been there, perhaps you would have a different lens to look through," Sherman responded.

Stephison indicated the DDA's Organization Committee, on which he serves, will bring a spending policy to the board to discuss at its December meeting.

"I agree it's hard line and it's a thin line that has to be drawn on what's acceptable and what's not acceptable on expenditures," he said.

Stephison believes part of the problem is the influx of new DDA board members has resulted in people not being aware of the policies and procedures established by previous boards. That's why they're going through the old meeting minutes in an effort to get "an actual booklet put together."

"We need to put it some place so that the DDA director . . . or whoever knows what the rules of the road (are)," Schneider said. "Right now, it sounds like we're not sure what the rules are."

"I didn't bring this up to start throwing stones or to beat up anyone," Dunn noted. "It's basically what's right is right. There's no excuses . . . That's why I want a procedure in place and if it's not followed, fire the person, period. Follow the rules. Make it black and white."