WARREN - After months of public debate, multiple calls for transparency and at least one anonymous bid for the attorney general's office to investigate, the city plans this week to look at its dealings with the embattled Sunshine of Warren Trumbull Area Inc.
Sunshine, a nonprofit housing organization created in 1992, has been under fire for failing to pay at least $188,600 in property taxes and fines and owns dozens of houses that have been condemned, demolished or are in disrepair.
Mayor Doug Franklin on Thursday said an auditing firm working on the city's 2012 audit has been asked to pay special attention to Warren's financial relationship with Sunshine.
"I asked if they could look at our books in relation to all Sunshine transactions," Franklin said. "I want to know if they will do an inquiry of our transactions."
Rea & Associates, the firm doing the city's audit, is scheduled to return this week, at which time the two sides will discuss how much the inquiry would cost.
"They are hired by the state, but it is our responsibility to pay for the audits," city Auditor Dave Griffing said.
Franklin said the firm already has looked at both the city's Community Development Department and its HOME program.
The HOME program provides grants to states and localities that often are used in partnership with local nonprofit groups to fund a range of activities that build, buy and / or rehabilitate houses.
The city's Community Development Department and the county created a consortium in 1992 to receive Housing and Urban Development HOME funds annually. Sunshine has used the HOME program to provide start-up money to buy and rehabilitate housing for low-income residents. Sunshine also took out bank loans for its projects.
From 1992 through mid-2012, the consortium received just more than $18 million in HOME funds. Of that, Sunshine received about $4.25 million, according to Community Development Director Michael Keys. The majority of the HOME funds were awarded by HUD from 1992 to 2003.
"We did not provide new HOME money to Sunshine until 2011, and that was about $53,000," Keys said recently.
Sunshine Executive Director Anthony J. Iannucci Jr. has maintained that Sunshine is a private, nonprofit organization not subject to open record laws. Warren Law Director Greg Hicks said he concurs with Iannucci and added that Sunshine is not eligible for a state audit.
Nate Brown, an organizer with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, disagrees.
"We believe Sunshine financial records should be public because much of the property was purchased with public funds," Brown said.
He said the organization has made public record requests to the Trumbull County commissioners and the city's Community Development Department. The MVOC also requested information from Sunshine about its operations and finances.
The city and county have said they plan to provide the requested information sometime in early to mid-June.
"We are pleased with responses from the county and the city," Brown said. "We're equally disappointed to not yet have received any sort of response or even acknowledgment from Sunshine or Director Tony Iannucci."
Record requests made to Sunshine by the Tribune Chronicle also have not been granted.
City Councilman Alford Novak, D-2nd Ward, in the meantime, sent a request to the state on Tuesday officially asking for audits of Sunshine Inc., Warren Redevelopment and Planning Corp. (WRAP) and Warren Parking System's LLC, all of which are administered by Iannucci.
In his letter to state Auditor Dave Yost, Novak wrote, "The entities have shown a history of a lack of open board meetings without available minutes, the barring of public attendance and refusal to provide administrative and financial information to Warren City Council."
He suggested that all the entities have continued cash flow problems, including Sunshine having issues of paying back taxes.
"I, as (well as) the undersigned Warren City Council members have received an overwhelming amount of requests for the state auditor's office to do a full audit of the above mentioned entities," Novak wrote, referring to Sunshine, WRAP and Warren Parking.
A state auditor spokesman, Mike Maurer said his office had not received an audit request as of Thursday.
He previously said that Sunshine might be considered a public body and eligible for a state audit. The office would evaluate Sunshine's status after receiving an audit request from the city, he said.
A similarly worded letter was sent to Attorney General Mike DeWine's office asking for an investigation of the three organizations. The letters also were signed by Councilmen John Brown Jr., D-3rd Ward, and Greg Bartholomew, D-4th Ward.
Trumbull County commissioners also want to look at the organization's finances, and made it known in a resolution passed last month seeking a full state audit.
"The (Trumbull County) planning commission has been working for years with Sunshine and it believes it is a good idea for an audit to be done," Commissioner Frank Fuda said last week. "We want to see a multi-year audit done to see how money has been used."
Fellow commissioner Dan Polivka added the request should not be seen as finger-pointing.
"We are looking for some transparency in examining Sunshine's finances," Polivka said. "I think that is what the public wants. It is what we want. This request is supported by our (Trumbull County) treasurer."
Although he did not speak to his colleagues about the idea, Polivka said it would be fair if the commissioners considered paying for a portion of a multi-year audit of Sunshine.
Kate Hanson, spokeswoman with the Ohio Attorney General's Office, last week said it received an anonymous request for the office investigate Sunshine.