City trying to sell $350,000 "paperweight" - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

FOX19 Investigates

City trying to sell $350,000 "paperweight"

The compressed natural gas truck purchased by Public Works in 2013. (FOX19 NOW/J.Barr) The compressed natural gas truck purchased by Public Works in 2013. (FOX19 NOW/J.Barr)
The CNG tanks are buried on the sanitation department's property in Lexington. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr) The CNG tanks are buried on the sanitation department's property in Lexington. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr)
Lexington officials allowed us in to photograph their CNG infrastructure last week. The city said it's a cheaper alternative to diesel right now.  (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr) Lexington officials allowed us in to photograph their CNG infrastructure last week. The city said it's a cheaper alternative to diesel right now. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr)
A Lexington, KY sanitation worker spent about 10 minutes filling this garbage truck when we visited the site last week. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr) A Lexington, KY sanitation worker spent about 10 minutes filling this garbage truck when we visited the site last week. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr)
Lexington, KY houses its fleet of 13 CNG trucks and petroleum-powered trucks at this site on the sanitation department's property just outside of town. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr) Lexington, KY houses its fleet of 13 CNG trucks and petroleum-powered trucks at this site on the sanitation department's property just outside of town. (PHOTO: FOX19/ Jody Barr)
CINCINNATI (FOX19) -

A FOX19 Investigation uncovered the purchase of a trash truck that the city can't fuel or use on most of the city's streets.

The truck, bought in 2013 by Cincinnati Public Services, has sat in a city parking lot for more than a year - unused and losing value by the day.

In late 2014, FOX19 filed an open records request with the city to find out how much the truck cost taxpayers and to find out who all signed off on the deal.

The city released this 74 page file to FOX19 NOW.

The truck was the city's first and only compressed natural gas garbage truck. In 2013, the city's Public Services department paid $356,787.20 for the truck and thousands of dollars in upgrades. The problem is that the city has put around 100 miles of trash collection on the truck since it was delivered to the Public Services offices on Bates Avenue in November 2013.

It wasn't until weeks after the purchase that the city realized three problems with it: The city has no way of fueling it, it's too big for most of city streets and the city doesn't have the infrastructure in place to utilize the truck's automated features. The city stopped the original payment on the truck in 2013 after city staffers found multiple issues with the truck at delivery. Those problems were eventually repaired and Cincinnati's Public Services department cut the check.

That left the city with a major problem: How to get the $356,787.20 in tax dollars back.

COUNCIL VOTES TO LOSE $100,000 WHILE LAUGHING

On Dec. 8, 2014, the city's Budget and Finance Committee debated a request from city manager Harry Black to sell the city's $356,000 CNG truck to Lexington, Kentucky. Black wanted an emergency ordinance approved to sell the truck after the city shopped it around the Tri-State looking for buyers.

The committee voted to approve Black's request, sending it to full council for approval. But committee chairman Charlie Winburn didn't let the deal go through without scrutiny.

“This is a dumb project. This was a waste of tax payer money,” Winburn said to current Public Services Director Gerald Checco during the Dec. 8 meeting. Checco was called into Winburn's committee to provide background and the reasons why the department couldn't use the truck.

Winburn said he found out about the truck months after the city bought it. Winburn discovered it from what he called “whistleblowers ” at Public Services. This came after he discovered the department spent $314,000 on new salt in 2014 while the department had hundreds of tons on hand that it appeared they'd forgotten about, according to Winburn.

"During the time of saltgate, I discovered garbage truckgate,” Winburn said during the Dec. 8 meeting. "I felt I had to challenge the process today - tell us what you know about this boondoggle," Winburn asked Checco.

"Mr. Chair, we actually agree with your analysis," Checco responded. Winburn told FOX19 NOW Checco took over the department long after former director Mike Robinson's administration purchased the CNG truck and that he does not blame Checco for the “dumb project.”

Checco acknowledged his department made a mistake with buying the truck, saying: “This truck was purchased without a clear analysis of what the truck could do in our city and the truck does not work for our city."

On Dec. 10, 2013, the full Cincinnati city council voted to sell the truck to Lexington, KY for $250,000 - a $106,000 loss on the original purchase. The vote was unanimous and some council members asked not to have Charlie Winburn discuss the issue again during the Dec. 10 meeting.

Some members laughed among themselves as they joked about Winburn again debating the truck issue after he spent more than an hour on it during the Dec. 8 committee meeting.

Mayor John Cranley also had an opportunity to discuss the truck in public, but commented from his council chair during the Dec. 10 meeting, "I'm having a hard time biting my tongue, as well."

While some members were laughing about keeping Winburn quiet, council voted to sell the truck to Lexington for $250,000. The vote went through as an “emergency ordinance,” making the deal happen as soon as the city could possibly get it done.

On Feb. 5, 2015 Winburn spoke with FOX19 about the truck and council's vote to sell it. Winburn said he agreed with taking the $106,000 loss so taxpayers could salvage something on the deal.

When questioned him about the laughter during the vote, Winburn chastised his fellow council members.

"Some of my council colleagues ought to be ashamed of themselves, giggling and laughing about a serious issue of $350,000 of taxpayer money that has been squandered,” Winburn told FOX19.

THE DEAL'S OFF

What Charlie Winburn didn't know when we interviewed him on Feb. 5 was that the $250,000 deal with the city of Lexington was dead. Lexington found out days before sealing the deal that one of the warranties on the trash truck wouldn't transfer.

“Would it surprise you if I told you two months later that Lexington has told the city they will not buy this truck?" FOX19's Jody Barr asked Charlie Winburn.

“It's been, you say, two months—they haven't even sold this thing?" Winburn asked.

After finding out Cincinnati's truck would come without a warranty, Lexington's Purchasing Director Todd Slatin called the deal off—despite what Slatin called “a pretty good deal.”

“We had bought similar trucks for closer to $350,000,” Slatin told FOX19 during an interview last week.

Unlike Cincinnati, Lexington can fuel CNG trucks. The Lexington sanitation department owns 13 CNG trash trucks like the one Cincinnati's sanitation department can't fuel. Lexington has a fueling station inside its fleet yard and fuels its fleet daily.

Slatin said he wanted to take Cincinnati's truck, but couldn't take the risk without a warranty.

"If it had the warranty included, it would be up there in the 8 to 10 range,” Slatin said of the deal on a scale of 1 to 10. “But, without the warranty, that changes things. Puts it down around a 4 to 5."

Slatin thinks Cincinnati's warranty transfer trouble could cause the city to lose even more on any future deals.

“It may be tough for them to sell. They may have to go lower,” he said.

COUNCILMAN: THEY NEED TO FIRE THOSE INDIVIDUALS

Cincinnati City Councilman Charlie Winburn wasn't laughing when he told FOX19 he's not finished working to find out why the CNG trash truck is still sitting in a city parking lot.

"They need to add up all the individuals who were involved with signing off on that and they need to fire those individuals,” Winburn said during at a Feb. 5 interview. Winburn was the only council member to challenge the deal during the December 2014 council meetings.

"When this council runs for re-election in the next few years, I think the voters ought to hold every council member accountable for allowing this to happen," Winburn said.

FOX19 NOW tried tracking down former Public Services Director Mike Robinson who left the post in 2014. After multiple attempts, he was unable to be found.

On Feb. 3, FOX19 NOW left two separate messages with Public Services Deputy Director Maraskeshia Smith's assistant asking for an interview concerning her role in purchasing the truck and the department's reasons for doing so. Neither Smith nor her office returned the messages. In another attempt to leave a message for Smith on Friday Feb. 6, her assistant said Smith was out of the office and wouldn't return until Monday Feb. 9.

FOX19 NOW's Jody Barr caught up with Mrs. Smith Monday morning outside the Public Services headquarters to ask her about the truck and her role in the deal. Smith would not answer any questions about the truck or whether she agrees with Winburn's assessment that anyone involved in the purchase should be fired. Smith walked into the building and offered no comment.

Later in the day, Cincinnati's spokesman, Rocky Merz, called FOX19 to say Smith did not support Robinson's decision to purchase the truck in 2013. Merz went on to tell us Smith did not sign the purchasing order for the truck. The city would not make Smith available for comment. 

In an email, Merz confirmed the decision to purchase the truck was made by former director Mike Robinson.

Winburn thought the truck was history in December when council voted to sell it, but did not know the deal with Lexington fell through until we sat down with him for an interview.

"This is not acceptable. Mr. Checco, if he has to travel all over the world to sell this truck, he needs to do so,” Winburn said. “This is called wasteful government spending at its very, very, very, very worst."

Winburn plans to call Checco back before his committee on Feb. 17 to get the director's plans for getting rid of the truck as soon as possible and to question the director about plans to issue disciplinary actions against anyone involved in the purchase.

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