MONESSEN – A rusting flagpole missing its U.S. flag is surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds in the heart of Monessen City Park.
Nearby sidewalks are crumbling and scattered with weeds as are those in Sixth Street Park, where a road pockmarked with ruts runs along a hillside overlooking the city’s downtown.
The fund that pays for the upkeep of city parks is among a number of special funds created with tax money in the cash-strapped city in the Mon Valley, and auditors have shown concerns since at least 2014 about whether hundreds of thousands of dollars raised under the earmarked property taxes were being distributed properly.
“Nothing has been right. That’s why I ran for office,” said Mayor Lou Mavrakis, who took office in 2014.
Former city administrator John Harhai said “there was money in the bank” when he and several other officials left in January 2014 following Mavrakis’ election.
“I can tell you, there was absolutely nothing wrong when we were there,” he said.
Aside from the 25-mill tax that feeds the general fund, the city bills property owners 3.51 mills for parks and recreation, 8.08 mills to pay debt and .84 mills to fund the library, according to the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
A mill generates about $55,000, Councilman Ron Chiaravalle said.
The firm that audits Monessen’s books warned the city more than once of a “significant deficiency” in the way the city allocates property taxes, according to a management letter MaherDuessel issued regarding the 2014 audit of the city’s finances.
In 2014, “tax revenue collected was not allocated to the funds properly based on the tax millage,” creating “the risk of tax revenue not being used for its intended purpose and could result in errors in financial reporting.”
Former city clerk Rosalie Nicksich, who retired in January 2014, said city officials “always took (the auditors’) recommendations.”
“If they would see something, they would say, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I would explain,” she said.
In the case of the parks, former Mayor Mary Jo Smith said the parks department’s three full-time employees were paid from the general fund, and money from the parks account was later transferred into the general fund to reimburse it for payroll expenses.
“We never had a problem. We made sure everything was done properly,” she said.
Councilwoman Patricia Bukowski, who chairs Monessen’s department of parks and public properties, said Monday the three parks employees are focusing on cutting grass.
She said the money raised under the parks tax is mostly spent to pay the parks workers, whose average pay is about $45,000 a year plus benefits.
The city, Bukowski said, does not have the money to update playgrounds, cut down dead trees and repair sidewalks in its parks.
Monessen is preparing to use jail inmates to level the sidewalks in City Park.
The city has five parks, not including the baseball and soccer fields.
“We have too many parks,” Mavrakis said.
Records show the city was repeatedly notified by bankers that special funds were coming up short as officials scrambled to meet obligations.
Monessen received an overdraft notice Oct. 28, 2014, warning the city it paid $3,706 in checks from the parks account while its balance was $1,591.
To balance the account, the city wired $2,200 from its line usage fund – fed by sewage fees and used to maintain sewer lines – the next day.
On Nov. 3, 2014, the city issued a check from the parks fund for $473 to an outdoor-equipment store. The fund showed a balance of $83, prompting anonther overdraft notice. The next day, $500 was transferred into the parks fund, again from the line usage fund.
The city also received notices in 2013 and 2014 when it issued checks for bond payments to BNY Mellon in amounts that exceeded the balance in the debt service fund.
The city ended 2015 with a roughly $616,000 deficit in its general fund, the audit of that year indicates.
City clerk Holly Minno said she was able to meet payroll expenses last year “by the luck of the draw.”
“I always made payroll first.”
Chiaravalle said the city’s financial woes worsened because of a practice in the past of overinflating revenues to balance budgets.
“There’s no doubt they overinflated revenues. They moved money as needed without council’s approval,” Chiaravalle said.
As of June 30, Monessen is nearly $300,000 short of the $2 million in real estate taxes earmarked this year for the general, parks, debt services and library funds, city Treasurer Gerald Saksun said at a council meeting Monday.
Chiaravalle, who heads the city’s department of streets and public properties, said the intermingling of funds came to an end this year after he questioned whether the city should make a payment to the library before its full portion of taxes had come in. City records reviewed by the Observer-Reporter confirm no checks were issued from special funds into the general fund between January and mid-July.
Harhai pointed out state law allows the city to raise property taxes for its general fund up to 30 mills if it has to.
“Why are you in debt when you have the ability to raise taxes by five mills?” he said.