Circleville’s fiscal officer stepping down after 30 years

Circleville’s fiscal officer stepping down after 30 years

Auditor Gayle Spangler will take her bird’s eye view of the city’s financial condition when she walks away from the post Jan. 9.

by Craig Lovelace

As 2020 ends, a longtime Circleville city employee credited with helping steer the municipality through tough financial times will wrap up a 30-year career.

City Auditor Gayle Spangler’s last day with the city is Jan. 9 for whom she will have worked a little more than three decades, the last 20 years as auditor. She never faced an opponent in the general election and, in fact, her only political race that was contested came in her initial Republican primary contest. 

“I’m tired,” Spangler, 60, said about choosing to retire. “My job has changed a lot since I first started.”

She was last re-elected in 2019 and will finish out the first year of her term that runs through 2023. Local Republican Party Central Committee Chairman Mike Whitten said some people have expressed an interest in the post. However, he added, the process of filling Spangler’s seat is in its early stages.

City Council President David Crawford, the first person to hear that Spangler was leaving, said having her at the auditor’s helm is and has been fortunate.

“Gayle had the good fortune to learn from our previous auditor, Madeline Sanders. She knows the auditor job very well and has used that knowledge to keep the city in compliance, suggest budget sparing work-arounds and to innovate.”

Ticking off some of her accomplishments, Crawford said Spangler secured federal funds to reimburse small businesses in the city for unexpected COVID-19 related expenses, suggested a grant/assessment program to help property owners repair sidewalks in disrepair, and was largely responsible for finding long-term solutions to ensure the historic Everts school properties could be saved and placed under the control of community caretakers.

She also most recently suggested to City Council taking on some one-year, short-term renewable notes, or debt, over the next three years – of $1.5 million initially. Those notes then would get rolled into a longer-term loan spread over 20 years to speed up and complete improvements at Ted Lewis Park, first approved in 2015 for which council allotted $100,000 annually. Spangler said at that rate, the park would never get finished.

“The projects are so large that you can’t even get a contract for that much. They far exceed $100,000,” said Spangler, indicating that low-interest rates today make the 20-year loan more plausible and won’t burden the city too much.

Public Services Director Terry Frazier said Spangler deserves credit for her leadership on the issue.

“Gayle was instrumental in providing adequate funding to allow for the proposed Ted Lewis Park improvements. Over the past few months, I had spoken with councilmembers, committees and City Council about the difficulty of providing timely and sufficient improvements to Ted Lewis. Barry Keller, finance committee chairman, approached Gayle about securing increased funding. Gayle promptly put together a financial plan and loan application that was soon thereafter approved by council.” 

In a nutshell, Spangler’s job is developing budgets that ultimately go before City Council for approval, ensuring there will be enough money for Circleville to meet its obligations. It involves reshaping budgets and moving monies from one fund to the next – there are 50 funds the auditor oversees – each dictated by Ohio law about how it can be spent. This year, for example, less revenue coming into city coffers because of COVID-19’s effect on the local economy – $300,000 less by mid-October compared with 2019 – led her to suggest slashing $1 million from those funds in the existing 2020 budget, which council approved over the summer.

Loss of industry

Spangler came into office amid a series of industrial losses in the later 1990s and early 2000s that packed a wallop on city finances. Rattling off companies such as Jefferson-Smurfit Container, General Electric, Carnation, Coca-Cola Bottling plant and Thomson Consumer Electronics, she said the city has since struggled fiscally. 

Thomson closing its facility was the single biggest blow, leading to the loss of 1,000 jobs that paid $15-$16 per hour. The plant operated since the 1970s – first by RCA and then Thomson in later years – manufacturing primarily glass tubes for television sets.

Between 2003 and 2004, layoffs at Thomson and GE were expected to decrease income-tax collections by $400,000 over two years, according to media reports at the time. Overall, Spangler estimated that industrial job losses from the 1990s and into the 2000s totaled between 2,000 and 3,000. 

The fiscal clamp that she would become familiar with started early in her tenure.

She began work as auditor in 2000 and said the mayor at the time cut each department’s budget by 15 percent in the middle of the year. “And I think that since I’ve been here, we’ve had to cut every budget.”

In irony of ironies, losing Thomson was because of competition from China and demands from Walmart to American manufacturers that they meet the retailer’s price or lose its business, according to the 2004 PBS documentary, “Is Walmart Good for America?” 

Thomson’s plant, featured in the documentary, sat across farmland in Circleville Township that eventually became home to the Walmart Supercenter along U.S. Route 23, on the outskirts of the municipality despite council’s approval of a Columbus developer’s request to annex the property into the city. 

Crawford, who was council president at the time, explains what happened:

“I would like to forget this episode,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Pickaway Press. “City council worked solidly over two years with the developer to annex into the city the land where the Walmart and most of the other south business district businesses are now located. Council voted 4-3 in favor of the annexation. The mayor at the time vetoed the legislation. The developer had a second plan. He developed the area outside the city limits, and it is doing great business today. For the city, it has lost out on millions in utility fees, and property and income tax revenue.” 

Spangler said the whole episode left a bad taste in her mouth and is the reason she avoids shopping at Walmart. She also isn’t sure if councilmembers knew all the facts at the time.

According to Spangler, the developer asked the city to write a $35,000 check as an incentive for him to move the property into the city. The mayor refused but later a citizen walked into City Hall and made a $35,000 donation to give to the developer. Spangler said she encouraged the mayor to take the donation and make the deal despite believing the two males’ egos made that impossible.

“We need that in the city; we need those tax dollars,” she said. “Let the ordinance go into effect without your signature. When I came into work the next morning, [the mayor] had vetoed the ordinance.”

It infuriated her, she said.

“Thomson left, you had a community struggling, you had the city struggling – and in comes this big, bully of a developer and the largest retailer into Podunk holler. It was just offensive.”

Spangler said the closings and job losses foisted an unrealistic and non-beneficial mindset upon city leaders.

“There are still a lot of people around who remember what Circleville was,” she said. “I can remember in the ‘90s when we had more money than we could spend. … In a lot of ways, we still want to live like it’s 1995; we still think we have all this money and we don’t. As a community, I think we have to accept that there are things we cannot pay for.”

Spangler said she regrets not pushing the former mayor harder to acquiesce to the developer’s request and for not lobbying councilmembers to override the veto that killed the deal. 

“If that were to happen today, I would be a lot more forceful, a lot more public. At the time, I had only been in office two or three years.”

Spangler said she’s come to believe about economic development that at the “end of the day, you make the deal.”

“This isn’t Mayberry; we have a $23 million budget and that’s a lot of money. You need professional management
with that kind of money who knows
how to manage budgets, expenditures
and personnel.”

— Gayle Spangler

In the now

When she came into office, the city repeatedly was cited by the state for using a cash-basis method versus the accrual method. Spangler said she overhauled the accounting system to GAAP, General Accepted Accounting Principles, that made budgeting more predictive, easier to flesh out information, and that lets council and the mayor administer the individual departments’ budgets and long-term capital plans. Indeed, during her career, her office has been recognized multiple times by the Ohio State Auditor’s Office for its clean financial audits. 

The financial scars will remain after Spangler leaves office, but she said there are steps Circleville can take that may help. 

For instance, she suggests reviewing items the city provides residents at no cost, such as supplying public lighting to housing subdivisions and fixing sidewalks. The former costs the city $177,000 annually and Spangler said there are communities that attach lighting and even snow plowing costs to homeowners’ real estate taxes.

“So, there are a lot of different ways that we can do things, I just think there are things we don’t do … and there are things that we are going to have to do,” she said. “We’ve come to the point where I don’t know if there’s anything left to cut.”

She said the current City Council contains a good group of people and applauds its decision to revisit becoming a charter city, an idea that was rejected by voters in May 2015 by an almost 2-1 margin.

Circleville is classified as a statutory city, meaning it is governed by the Ohio Revised Code. A charter city status provides more legal flexibility for and control by a community to structure a government that best fits its needs. Most Ohio cities are charter cities.

Spangler supports a structure geared toward hiring professionals, such as a city manager for instance, who would run the day-to-day operations and report to council. There are charter cities, for instance, that hire fiscal officers and do away with elected auditors and treasurers. Indeed, Spangler said outside of on-the-job state mandated training, there is no criteria for her job that has become more complicated than it was back in 2000 when her first term in office began.

“They don’t need an education or any knowledge [of the job;] they don’t have to have anything. Anybody can run for my position,” she said. “This isn’t Mayberry; we have a $23 million budget and that’s a lot of money. You need professional management with that kind of money who knows how to manage budgets, expenditures and personnel.”

Under the best of circumstances, putting a charter city proposition before voters won’t occur until 2022 though the process will start next year, according to Sheri Theis, council’s point person on the issue.

Looking back & ahead

Spangler is the city expert on fiscal matters, but readily admits it wasn’t an easy evolution, saying her learning curve was about 90 degrees. When she took office, Circleville used the cash basis accounting method –which recognizes revenues and expenses at the time cash is received or paid out – versus the accrual method that records when a transaction occurs.

She considers the switch to GAAP one of the two biggest successes in her professional time with the city. The other was working with former Services Director Louis McFarland to create a comprehensive inventory of the city’s physical assets such as desks, water pipes, streets and buildings that dated back as far as 200 years in some cases.

On what she terms “a more non-auditor role,” Spangler says she is most proud of her involvement in helping Ralph Starkey and others get Mary Virginia Crites Hannan Park off the ground.

“To have been part of this mission … is my greatest personal achievement,” she said. “The coordination of public, private and nonprofit entities was a feat and truly showed the character of our city and county residents. When I walk through the park, I still hear Ralph rustling in the trees. Our city is blessed to have such a wonderful outdoor space.”

Lisa Johnson got to know Spangler when they each worked in the income-tax section of the city Auditor’s Office in the 1990s and the pair have remained friends since.

The executive director of Haven House of Pickaway County, which provides shelter and housing services to victims of domestic violence, Johnson used these adjectives to describe Spangler: tenacious, smart and dependable.

“Gayle was a numbers person and I was not,” Johnson said. “She always knew what she was doing and did not let people convince her otherwise. I would call her a driving force.”

So, on Jan. 1, what is retirement going to look like for Spangler? 

She isn’t sure, but it will involve spending time with her first grandchild born to a daughter who lives two hours outside Circleville, and she will keep working as the part-time fiscal officer for the village of Williamsport, which she’s done for the past three years.

Spangler has no immediate plans to run for another elected office and said she’s approaching life after retirement with an open mind.

“I’m young enough that I’d like to do some different things,” she said.

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