City leaders in Lawrence have approved appropriating $250,000 that will be used to pay an outside law firm as part of an ongoing investigation involving 2022 budget issues.
The Lawrence Common Council voted 6-2 during its March 6 meeting to approve the appropriation, while councilman Rick Wells chose to abstain. Councilmen Tom Shevlot and Lauren Russel voted against the spending during the meeting, which was contentious at times as residents directed their frustration to the council during public comment.
The council, which had initially voted to approve $3.6 million in general obligation bonds in November 2022, repealed those bonds a month later on the grounds that the city’s 2022 budget was reverted to the approved 2021 budget from the state. Lawrence Mayor Steve Collier previously said that resulted in a reduced spending budget for the city.
However, the latest appropriation by the council wasn’t originally budgeted and comes directly from the city’s general fund, which can primarily be used for any general purpose, said Tyler Douthit, city controller. Douthit said the $250,000 that was appropriated was intended to fund an investigation by the council into the administration regarding the 2022 budget.
The investigation involves looking into the mayor’s office and has involved requesting documents, according to Douthit. He said the reason why the 2022 budget reverted to the 2021 budget was because the council failed to provide a breakdown of city spending within departments, which he noted is required by state law.
Douthit said when the council made cuts to its 2022 budget, “they did not provide any breakdown” of how those funds would be used. That ultimately led to the budget reverting to the previous year once it was submitted to the state’s Dept. of Local Government Finance, he added.
The City of Lawrence ended 2022 with about $5.8 million in its general fund, but Douthit said if the council continues to appropriate money that wasn’t budgeted, the overall balance will eventually diminish. The council has contracted with the law firm Bose McKinney & Evans and is also working with the accounting firm Krohn & Associates surrounding the investigation, said Cori Korn, chief of staff with the city.
Douthit said in reality, the council could choose to conduct its investigation without using taxpayer money. Douthit confirmed that he, Collier and Deputy Controller Humphrey Nagila have already been subpoenaed, noting that all three agreed to participate in depositions regarding what they know.
“They’ve asked us everything that I believe they want to ask,” Douthit said. “It seems like they’re not sure what it is they’re looking for and I would phrase this like they’re fishing looking for some things.”
City Councilwoman Maria Rusomaroff declined to comment when reached by Current regarding the investigation and $250,000 appropriation, and a message was left for City Councilman Shawn Denney, who is running for mayor. A phone call to City Council President Tyrrell Giles went to voicemail.
Korn added that it’s unclear what the council is seeking “and they have not been successful in finding anything.” Douthit also said he believes the council ultimately wants to find a member of the city’s administration who is responsible for the budget reverting.
Douthit said it is also possible that the council could seek additional funding tied to the investigation as time goes on.
“I think they’ll drag this out for the rest of this election cycle,” he said.