CINCINNATI -- If Cincinnati were misspending 911 funds and a Homeland Security grant, City Manager Harry Black and Budget Director Chris Bigham are sure an audit would have found it.
That allegation -- that the city misused funds intended for its 911 center for other purposes -- is the heart of a federal lawsuit Police Capt. Jeff Butler filed last week. He claims Black and Assistant City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian refused to make him an assistant chief because he pointed out the problem with those funds.
City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething said Butler is trying to "paper over" his deficiencies, leaving him to "wildly speculate and make baseless claims and allegations against the city manager and other city officials."
"The complaint itself lacks merit completely," Boggs Muething said.
Until Jan. 1, Butler was the police department's point man in the 911 center; Hill-Christian was one of four people who recommended three candidates for assistant police chief to Black. Butler says his counterpart in the Cincinnati Fire Department was promoted to assistant chief even though he supervises fewer people.
Bigham said his office had a hard time making sense of Butler's claim about the Homeland Security grant. He said the city got the money more than a decade ago and worked with the county to buy a computer-aided dispatch system. According to Butler's lawsuit, he found problems with that purchase, including:
some grant paperwork didn't make sense or meet grant guidelines;
an unsigned submission page in a related grant had a fictitious name;
the system's configuration was different than outlined in the grant;
city officials hadn't signed any change orders.
Brian Gillan, Butler's attorney, said they tried to work out the issues with the city before suing, but the city wouldn't budge. Butler didn't take his concerns to the Ohio State Auditor's Office or the Ohio Ethics Commission, he said.
Like other communities that receive extensive federal funds, city spending on federal grants has to undergo an extensive auditing process called a Single Audit.
"If there's any irregularity with a grant, the Single Audit will find it," Black said.
Bigham insists the city can account for its spending of 911 money, too: In 2006, Cincinnati set up a separate fund within its budgeting process for an enhanced 911 system. Money from 911 wireless surcharge fees flows into that pot, and it can only be spent for 911 functions. The Federal Communications Commission has to certify the enhanced 911 system first, which Bigham says it did in 2007. Once the FCC certification comes through, Bigham said the funding can go toward personnel costs.
"(We) have full accounting for how those moneys are used," he said.
Cincinnati's 911 center has been dogged with technology problems for at least a year -- so much so that Black said last month he was dumping subcontractor Comtech because it was unreliable. Butler spoke with the I-Team last October about a technology hiccup called "ghost calls" from cellphones: The line rings and rings, but it's not really ringing at a 911 center, he said.
"As you know, when you're doing a turnaround of any sort -- when you're making changes, significant changes -- not everybody's going to like it. Not everybody's going to be comfortable with it," Black said.