Did the city of Cincinnati pave all the roads it was supposed to from 1991 to 1997 without keeping adequate track of the work, or did someone defraud the city of the $15 million that was supposed to be spent on roads during that period?
Nearly three weeks after the discrepancy surfaced, there are no answers, and an investigation is continuing.
The issue began in the fall when an annual report indicated that 1998 road repair costs increased while the number of miles fixed that year decreased. So, in October, City Manager John Shirey ordered an audit of road repairs and expenses back to 1991.
City Internal Auditor Greg Hanfbauer finished the first phase of the audit in late December and discovered that only 460 miles of roads were rehabilitated, when 818 miles should have been. Likewise, only $50 million of the planned $65 million was spent on roads from 1991 to 1997.
The audit's findings have sparked calls from council members for increased spending on roads to make up for the apparent backlog of work and for a new auditing/accounting system to better track progress of city work.
The city of Indianapolis, Councilman Pat DeWine said, keeps track of exactly how much it costs to fill a pothole, pave a mile of road, mow an acre of grass and many other government functions. That makes it easier to pinpoint inefficiency. Cincinnati does not, he said, which makes it impossible to know if the city is operating efficiently.
"There's some merit to some of the factors (DeWine)'s talking about," said Councilman Todd Portune, former chair of the Public Works Committee. Portune declined to be more specific.
Portune said the roads issue isn't about using city workers versus using private contractors, because the city already hires private construction companies to handle its road repairs.
Former Public Works Director John Hamner, who retired in 1998, said he doesn't believe anyone could have walked away with $15 million, as has been suggested in some quarters.
"It's not probable for money not to be spent appropriately, because there's so many checks and balances," Hamner said.
A more likely explanation for some of the problem, he said, is that city engineers and private contractors confused lane miles with road miles. A lane mile is one road lane a mile long, while a road mile is one mile of road, which could include multiple lanes.
As far as specifics go, Hamner doesn't have any.
"I don't know what they're looking at, and I don't know what the situation is," he said.
Although Portune said he doesn't know of any other discrepancies involving other city departments, he believes similar problems could exist simply because of the size of the city's bureaucracy. DeWine agreed.
John Deatrick, director of Transportation and Engineering -- a new department formed from Public Works in 1999 to handle the city's road repairs -- was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Hanfbauer was on vacation and also could not be reached for comment.
Burning Questions is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.