Thursday, July 10, 1997
Money gives us right
to be snoopy


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is not meant to be a travelogue. It's about a lot of money belonging to you and me and how it was spent or possibly misspent. But getting there is part of the story.

The place is about 90 minutes east on Route 52. Shortly after you leave orange-barrel country, little blue-and-white signs start appearing: "Scenic Route."

As though we don't have eyes in our heads and wouldn't notice the sheer rock walls and the river behaving itself after its March tantrum.

As though we would be so intent on passing through Felicity and Chilo and Utopia that we would not see the fields of tobacco and Queen Anne's lace and the roadside corn flowers.

As though we otherwise would overlook the twin cannons on the bridge at Point Pleasant, suitably fierce monuments for the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant.

Scenic route, indeed.

Outside intrusion

Makes you wonder how much these redundant little signs cost us taxpayers. It's a drop in the bucket, I suppose, considering the billions of dollars the government spends. But I don't relate to billions. How tall would that stack of money be? What would it buy?

I do understand $25,000. That's a car with leather and a CD changer. And I do understand $275,000. That's a very nice house in a good neighborhood. So it makes me mad to think that maybe somebody is squandering or chiseling that kind of money.

That's why I wanted to take you all the way to Manchester in Adams County, normally buffered from the outside world by miles of scenery and not much else. Besides the trouser and welded-wire factories, there's not much industry. Second Street is the main drag, with an Ace Hardware and Family Dollar along with Donnie's Mobile Home Sales, Sun Your Buns tanning center and T 'n' T Gun Shop.

Right now, the outside world is intruding daily.

Two federal agencies and the state auditor's office are pawing through the records of this village of about 2,500 souls. Officials were called before a grand jury. Some of them have called it a witch hunt. Bureaucratic nitpicking.

The town's newspaper, the Signal, has not entered the fray. "We're waiting until the investigation and audit is completed before we do a story," owner and publisher William G. Woolard Jr. explains. It's important, he says, not to jump in before all the facts are known.

Besides, he helped apply for the federal grant under investigation. And he's related to the mayor. And the money was in an account in his cousin's bank. That's the way things go in a little town. Just ask Aunt Bea and Andy and Barney Fife.

The man little kids call "Chief John," Police Chief John Widdig, is in hot water over a $275,000 federal grant and some equipment.

Inflated figures

The grant application indicated that police officers are paid $25,000, although the chief himself makes only $19,158 a year and records show that the most an entry level officer was ever paid was $13,146. The chief says he didn't do the math and that missing documents were washed away in the March flood.

Chief Widdig may be the one who is being hung out to dry. There were other signatures on the grant application and people elected to oversee the way money is spent. It might simply be sloppy bookkeeping and human error. Or both.

Of more than 16,000 similar public safety grants worth $8.8 billion, only a couple dozen have had problems, according to Charles Miller of the Justice Department.

That's hard to imagine, government red tape being what it is. Maybe Manchester was unlucky enough to come to their attention. Or maybe it's an old boy network gone awry. Whatever it is, the people who run things in Manchester are fed up with government and media snoops.

Well, that's tough.

They can run their remote, pretty river town free from outside interference. Or they can use our money. But they can't do both.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE

Previous stories

DEBT COULD WIPE OUT COPS July 8, 1997
MILITARY SURPLUS PART OF PROBE July 6, 1997
MANCHESTER POLICE INVESTIGATED July 5, 1997
PROGRAM PUT 162 COPS ON LOCAL STREETS July 5, 1997
VILLAGE GOT GRANT FOR 5 COPS, HIRED 2 July 5, 1997