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Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr speaks in front of the new mural marking the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in downtown Cheyenne. Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge gave the city of Cheyenne $100,000 to aid Mayor Orr’s Fight the Blight plan in 2018. A total of $56,571 will be returned to the organization for either lack of use before or improper use after the October 2018 deadline. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – In early 2018, the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge gave the city of Cheyenne $100,000 to aid Mayor Marian Orr’s Fight the Blight plan. All of that money was meant to be spent by October 2018 for the project’s testing phase, but only about $44,000 was used.

Now, a total of $56,571 will be returned to the organization for either lack of use or improper use after the October 2018 deadline.

Based on the results of the testing phase, Cheyenne was not selected as a Bloomberg finalist to receive $1 million or $5 million to carry out the project. In the months that followed, about $23,000 of the grant was used to pay for Christmas decorations for city offices, catering for public events and the mayor’s travel expenses.

The city will be paying back that money, along with the remaining $33,217 left unspent from the grant.

“There was some confusion on my part,” Orr said Friday. “The funds are not discretionary. They are very much tied to the grant.”

Bloomberg chose Cheyenne as one of the 35 “Champion Cities” from more than 320 applicants from across the country. The philanthropy organization saw promise in Cheyenne’s proposed “Buildings with a Purpose” plan, which would have created a website to match the owners of underused or undeveloped buildings with redevelopment resources.

“We really felt without the $1 million, it would be hard to pursue much further,” Orr said. For instance, the mayor said just maintaining the website would exceed the $100,000 budget.

During the testing period, the city spent $43,428 on the project. They hosted a kickoff event at the Grier Building to hear feedback from stakeholders and community members and held another event to gauge interest in crowdfunding as a development resource.

Robert Briggs, who was the city’s planning and development director at the time, worked on the project team during the testing phase. Briggs said that rather than focusing on spending the $100,000, the group tried to set goals and answer important questions with each step.

“I think we focused on what was doable and what was relevant,” Briggs said. He said the Mayor’s Challenge is “about testing and learning and growing from the experience.”

For the first event, about $6,000 was spent on GoPro cameras and equipment to capture the attendees’ reactions to different aspects of the plan. Posters were designed and advertisements were purchased to help promote the events, and a consulting firm was hired to explore crowdfunding as a source for redevelopment projects.

“You had to spend money and then keep it going, and there wasn’t the capacity to keep that funding going,” Orr said.

From April to October 2018, the money was generally used on purchases related to the testing phase. October 2018 was the first time the mayor booked a hotel room using the Bloomberg Philanthropy funds.

“There was a period of time that expenditures coming into the mayor’s office were getting tagged to (the Bloomberg) account,” Orr said. “Those funds are all being recategorized into a discretionary account.”

City Treasurer Robin Lockman said each department codes its own spending for where the funds should be pulled from, which is, in turn, approved by her department. With purchasing using the Mayor’s Challenge Grant, expenses would have been manually coded from the mayor’s office to draw from that fund.

A Friday press release from the city said, “An accounting entry error occurred, and that error has now been corrected.” But nearly 120 purchases from October 2018 on were coded to be paid for with the Bloomberg Philanthropies funds.

The financial statements were first obtained by Cheyenne City Council President Rocky Case, who requested the documents after hearing the mayor used money from the grant to pay for a waffle truck for a public meeting.

Case said he took issue with Orr’s initial statement to KGAB radio, which read: “Councilman Case has questioned some of the expenditures from the Bloomberg national challenge grant. The councilman is mistaken. The expenditures are all appropriate and were used only as authorized under the Bloomberg grant. The Bloomberg grant has been very helpful to the city, as it allowed significant activities to occur on behalf of the city without having to use taxpayer funds.”

According to Case, the reappropriation process tells a different story.

“Clearly, there is at least the appearance of impropriety,” Case said. “Why would the mayor and her administration go through that exercise if, in fact, the expenditures were appropriate as related to the grant?”

He said seeing the itemized list was “quite alarming.”

After receiving the documents, Case posted them on Facebook Oct. 5, while Orr was on vacation.

Orr said Friday the question could have been brought up in a more productive way.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that he didn’t just come to my office,” Orr said. “Then, we could have done all of this outside of social media, with just half the story being told and accusations being asserted.

“I don’t think that’s a good way to do business,” Orr said. “I don’t think it’s a good way to lead or to govern, and I hope, in the future, if he or any other members of council have concerns, that they come to us first.”

When Orr returned from vacation this past Monday, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle attempted to schedule an interview with her to discuss the Bloomberg Philanthropy funds. The meeting was scheduled for Thursday morning, delayed until Thursday afternoon, then postponed again until Friday morning.

After the interview, a news release from the mayor’s office was sent out Friday afternoon. It said, “Several days ago, I instructed my staff to assemble all of the data and receipts associated with those charges and develop a full accounting. That full accounting is attached.”

The new itemized list outlined exactly which purchases were improper and the city must repay. A total of $512.87 worth of items bought before October 2018, when the grant was supposed to be spent, will be paid back. The other $22,841.39 that must be reimbursed was spent between October 2018 and August 2019.

Orr said the purchases from after October 2018 would’ve been made, regardless of having the Bloomberg grant. Using the example of desk chairs, which were bought with the Bloomberg grant, she said the purchase would normally be paid using funds the city has for facilities.

Since those budgets are already finalized, however, the $23,354.26 will come from the mayor’s discretionary fund.

Some of the spending the city will repay includes:

$595 for an eCampus textbook called “Dealing with Dysfunction”

$904.90 for Christmas decorations for city hall

$1,399 for a stage master presidential prompter package

$2,160.86 for the city’s end-of-the-year meeting

$2,230.43 for catering and other food items for events and meetings

$8,714.89 for travel expenses like gas, airfare and hotel rooms

As of Friday, Bloomberg Philanthropies had not responded to emails and calls from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle seeking comment.

Orr said although the final goal wasn’t accomplished, the Mayor’s Challenge provided valuable insights and learning experiences.

“The whole thing has been so incredibly positive,” Orr said. “We are so grateful for the experience and the opportunities we have been introduced to and included in.”

After hearing community feedback, the Planning and Development Department began the process of building a flow chart to help clarify the process for developing a business. Orr said the Mayor’s Challenge also led to the creation of the city’s chief economic development officer role.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is how important it is for cities to think innovatively when it comes to solving problems,” Orr said.

Going forward, Councilman Case said the council will look into the rules on spending for the discretionary fund. He said the council may consider a reappropriation for the funds due to the Bloomberg Philanthropy debacle.

“If there’s so much confusion and miscommunication, maybe she should take that $600 book about managing in dysfunctional environments, read it and apply the principles,” Case said.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretMAustin.

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