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Published: Friday, 1/13/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Police help sought over missing city equipment

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The city has asked Toledo police to investigate the disappearance of more than 40 pieces of equipment -- including a forklift -- from the city's Neighborhood Beautification Action division.

In addition to the forklift, missing items include leaf and snow blowers, chain saws, drills, hedge trimmers, a camera, and a riding mower. The city was still adding up the cost of the missing goods on Thursday.

City officials discovered the property was missing while taking inventory as part of a restructuring of the city's Department of Neighborhoods, which has been rocked by allegations of bid-rigging, favoritism, and poor oversight. The beautification division was part of the neighborhoods department until December and is responsible for maintaining vacant lots and removing graffiti. It's housed in a facility on Lagrange Street, just east of Bancroft Street.

Michael Bombrys, who took over management of the beautification crew in December, discovered the equipment was gone and numerous other problems -- including poor record-keeping, missing keys, and "hundreds of cases" of tardiness among seasonal employees who nonetheless received full pay, according to a memo he wrote to the mayor's office Wednesday. The crew employs three permanent employees and about 50 seasonal workers each year. Attempts to reach the previous manager of the crew, Mike Borsos, were unsuccessful.

READ: Memo from Michael Bombrys to the mayor's office

Mr. Bombrys wrote that he was "highly concerned" about the problems.

"In these cases, no police reports were filed when it became known that equipment was missing, nor were any internal reports generated to address the issue," he wrote. "We are continuing our efforts to track down some of the larger items, such as the forklift and tractors, but I am afraid that most of the missing inventory is lost forever."

All the items appear to have disappeared after Feb. 15, the date of the beautification division's last inventory, which Mr. Bombrys used as the basis for his inventory. He noted that employees told him the fenced-in area that held the equipment was left open and unsecured during the workday.

Shirley Green, the city's safety director, took Mr. Bombrys' memo to the police department's deputy chief of investigations Thursday morning. Police had no additional information about the case Thursday. Mayor Mike Bell's spokesman, Jen Sorgenfrei, said there are no suspects yet.

The missing materials will expand the city's internal investigation of the scandal-plagued neighborhoods department that began last month, Ms. Sorgenfrei said. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are also investigating.

Those probes began after The Blade revealed that federally funded contracts awarded by the department to rehabilitate homes sometimes did not go to the lowest bidder without adequate explanation, that sealed bids were opened without city officials present, and that bid documents were then changed. Contractors alleged cronyism, bid-rigging, and improper sharing of secret bid data.

Since then, the city has changed its bidding procedures and restructured the department. In announcing the restructuring last month, the Bell administration said moving the beautification crew and several other divisions to the Department of Public Service would allow the troubled neighborhoods department to focus solely on federally funded community development programs.

Last week, Mayor Bell also fired neighborhoods department Director Kattie Bond and Housing Commissioner Mike Badik. Two other department staffers were suspended, demoted, and moved to different departments.

In his Jan. 3 termination letter to Ms. Bond, the mayor wrote, "It is my belief that you knew or should have known of serious issues occurring in your Department. ... Moreover, you consistently failed to bring matters to my attention so that problems within the Department could be addressed."

The mayor's office said Thursday the problems with the beautification crew were unrelated to Ms. Bond's firing, which has garnered protests from several local pastors, two former mayors, and other supporters.

Councilman Adam Martinez, who is chairman of council's neighborhoods committee, said the missing items and other problems in the beautification division are part of a pattern that extends beyond the current administration.

"This is more of a systemic lack of oversight and accountability," Mr. Martinez said. "This didn't just happen overnight."

Because of funding cuts, there has been a lot of turnover in the beautification program, Mr. Martinez said. Still, those responsible need to be held accountable, even if that means pressing charges, he said.

"The taxpayers and council expect the administration to do what's necessary to ensure accountability," he said.

Contact Tony Cook at: tcook@theblade.com, or 419-724-6065.


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