Installation of Sunset Hills playground equipment to continue despite $60,000 overrun

Former mayor ‘saddened’ 50th gala ending on ‘note of controversy’

By BURKE WASSON

Sunset Hills officials will continue with plans to install new, handicapped-accessible playground equipment at Watson Trails Park despite last week revealing a reported $59,811 cost overrun for that project.

While City Clerk Laura Rider told residents at the Board of Aldermen’s April 22 meeting that the playground equipment was to be funded with profits from the city’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2007, celebration events conducted throughout the year generated no profits. Therefore, the city is left with a $59,811 cost for the playground equipment besides $80,000 already spent on the ongoing 50th anniversary celebration.

Former Mayor John Hunzeker — ousted from office in April by then-Ward 4 Alderman Mike Svoboda — authorized budgeting the expense for the playground equipment, according to Rider.

The city clerk said that because Hunzeker was president of the now-dissolved 501C3 corporation organizing the city’s 50th anniversary events and because that group was a “separate entity” from the city, he did not need the Board of Aldermen’s approval to authorize the additional expenses.

Ward 1 Aldermen Frank Hardy and Doug McGuire said at an April 22 board meeting that the Board of Aldermen should have been asked to approve funding for the new playground equipment, which will be in-stalled by May 15 by Game Time Play-ground Equipment.

But Rider said aldermen actually did approve the expenses for the playground equipment in several pieces of department budgets.

“All the expenses were approved by the board,” Rider said. “They receive a monthly report at the Board of Aldermen meeting about invoices to be paid. So any expenses were submitted the same way because the expenses were paid out of the general fund. They were approved.”

“… They knew from the very beginning that the mayor (Hunzeker) had stated that he wanted to purchase this playground equipment. That was in the brochures. That was from the very beginning back in late ’06 that he had stated that was the goal. To celebrate the anniversary, of course, by having these events and then any proceeds would go toward that purchase of that playground equipment. And so I guess that’s where all those expenses then exceeded the revenue that was generated.”

Svoboda, who was first elected as a Ward 4 alderman in 2007, said the additional expenses were accomplished in several small pieces absorbed through city department expenses.

The mayor said the expenses for the playground equipment were included in “line items” in city department budgets approved by aldermen.

At the same time, he contends that aldermen were unaware that the playground equipment was included in those expenses.

“We get a stack of bills every month that are an inch thick,” Svoboda said. “And it was probably line items in there. They say: ‘You guys OK’d this.’ And you try to go through it every month and look at all this stuff. But unless you’ve actually got the actual invoices, all you’re doing is looking at a line item on a spreadsheet. If something doesn’t look out of place. Every month, we question some things. But you’d almost have to go back through a two-foot-high stack of paper one line item at a time to figure out where all this money piled up from.”

“… The board had authorized $80,000 to be spent on the 50th anniversary. And there was over and above what we had authorized. There was another $60,000 spent. But it was in bits and pieces over a period of time, so we never really saw a big chunk being spent. And it wasn’t until (Ward 4 Alderman) Frank Gregory was really pushing to insist on a total accounting of everything that was spent that somebody put together a package of numbers for us. The bottom line was we went over by about $60,000 of what we thought should have been there.”

The mayor contended that these expenses were not made available to aldermen until after Hunzeker left office after the April 8 election.

“As a board, we’d been trying to get that information for the past two or three months and it’s been a fight to get it,” Svoboda said. “And soon as he (Hunzeker) was gone, the information became available. I’m sure he knew about it.”

After being contacted, Hunzeker issued the following statement Monday:

“While traveling on business, I was called by Burke Wasson of the Call regarding the recent Board of Aldermen meeting in Sunset Hills. I was surprised to learn the 50th anniversary celebration was a point of discussion. The costs of the 50th anniversary celebration were approved by the Board of Aldermen and supported by contributions of businesses and residents in the city. Each event was managed by dedicated volunteers and chaired by residents, staff, members of the Chamber of Commerce, management of Laumeier Sculpture Park and Thomas Jefferson School.

“I’m saddened to learn that this community-building effort is ending on a note of controversy. My wish for the new Board of Aldermen is that they continue the efforts to make Sunset Hills a more desirable place to live by maintaining its low-density residential zoning, redevelopment of its commercial core and a commitment to the expansion of parks and recreational programs.”

Svoboda said residents can expect to see the playground equipment installed and hinted that city officials might further investigate how the cost overrun occurred.

“It’s not like we’re going to go steal the playground away from the kids or anything like that,” Svoboda said. “It’s like: OK, we lost money on this, it cost us more than we thought, but we’re obviously going to go ahead with it.

“… There still might be some more investigation going in on this. We got the initial paper that got the big number and it’s like OK, this has been brought up to us that this was done in little bits and pieces over a two-year period and that’s how the number got so big. It came out of department budgets a little bit at a time. And we may try and figure out how that happened.”