CityScape, Councilwoman Refute Allegations of Misusing ARP Funds

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The executive director of Youngstown CityScape says the organization “did not knowingly” use any American Rescue Plan funds inappropriately and plans to respond in full to a letter she received, belatedly, from the city’s law director stating otherwise.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Sharon Letson said she received a letter from Law Director Jeff Limbian on Tuesday afternoon, although the letter is dated July 17.  

The letter, first reported by WKBN TV, alleges CityScape, its employees and 3rd Ward Councilwoman Samantha Turner used ARP funds inappropriately in violation of federal law.

“Please cease all ARP expenditures until a complete review can be accomplished,” Limbian’s letter states. “It appears that federal laws have been violated and certainly expenditures are not in conformity with the Youngstown city administration’s plan for the best utilization of ARP funds.”

Letson stated, “CityScape did not knowingly use any funds improperly. ARP funding and guidelines are new and untested, and we will take all necessary steps to clarify the process. It is significant to note that no one from the city of Youngstown has ever reached out to me or our staff to attempt to clarify or resolve any issues.”

CityScape is a nonprofit organization that uses donations to beautify and spur development across the city. Among its major efforts is the annual Streetscape event, where volunteers help to plant and beautify areas downtown and near the downtown.

The organization has partnered with the city on several projects, including the Belmont Corridor Strategic Investment Plan. The study and plan will cover Belmont from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard downtown north to the border with Trumbull County at Gypsy Lane.

In February, Turner said she appropriated about $1.1 million from her ward’s $2 million ARP allocation to Youngstown CityScape for projects, at least $300,000 of which she expected to go toward the Belmont plan and beautification projects along the corridor.

The city and CityScape are working with Milestone Partners, a Cleveland-area consulting firm, to perform the study and prepare the plan.

Limbian’s letter states Turner’s involvement in CityScape’s review and selection of requests for qualifications and the subsequent appointment of Milestone, as well as City Architecture, “crosses the line” for a legislator and “should be discouraged.”

“Youngstown Cityscape has been utterly transparent throughout this entire process,” Turner said in a statement released late Tuesday. “I met with the City of Youngstown Chief of Staff, Nikki Posterli, before presenting the information to the ARPA committee on June 28, 2023. Since the day of the ARPA committee meeting, there has yet to be any correspondence from the administration to CityScape or myself stating issues with their use of funds. Moreover, the administration and the ARPA committee have had all 3rd Ward ARPA requests, and I offered the proposed expenditures, process, budget, and reporting guidelines. Upon reviewing that information, legislation was passed, and the administration made the first payment to CityScape. Regarding the first quarter of ARPA spending, I am confident CityScape would work with the administration to make corrections if the administration had any perceived issues. The letter dated July 17th, received today, took all involved by surprise because we have all been transparently working for the betterment of the community,” she said. 

Turner also said that she has repeatedly requested spending guidelines regarding ARP money from the administration but has received nothing. “I was a no vote on the $2 million council member allocations for this reason; without policies and rules from the law department, nonprofit organizations would be left with the burden of interpreting a 700-plus page law,” she said.

Limbian alleges in his letter that ARP money was spent on lobbying members of Congress during a visit to Washington, D.C., in an effort to secure additional funding.  

“The trip to Washington to lobby Congress members appears to be a direct violation of the Byrd Anti-Lobbying Amendment,” the letter states. Among these expenditures was for food and alcohol at restaurants that totaled $425.44, the letter noted. Limbian also suggested that ARP monies were used for grant writing purposes to secure additional dollars.

A review of spending during the first quarter of 2023 “shows disturbingly inappropriate expenditures for lobbying to secure additions [sic] funds in contravention of federal law,” the letter continues.

Limbian cites an Airbnb in Washington, consulting firms, vendors and “excessive CityScape administration fees are all suspect and must be analyzed in more depth and will require more review.”

Limbian is requesting all receipts, invoices and expenditures be forwarded to the law department “so that an investigation with greater scrutiny can be accomplished.”

Limbian could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Turner said the quarterly report was voluntary, and were there any questions, the administration should have contacted the organization earlier.

“If something were misspent, I would have hoped the Administration would bring it to the organization’s attention and ask for clarification rather than send what appears to be a politically motivated letter,” Turner said in her response. “However, I will work with the United States Treasury to ensure that we meet the required laws, and I look forward to providing additional information in the future.”

Letson emphasized that CityScape has been an important part of the city’s development for more than 25 years and has a long record of commitment to improving the city.

“For 26 years we have been a loyal partner to the city, and have worked tirelessly to improve and revitalize our community,” Letson said.  “We are preparing to respond to the letter and resolve any outstanding questions. For 26 years, our reputation has been impeccable, and we intend to ensure it remains so.”

Pictured at top: Youngstown City Councilwoman Samantha Turner, D-3rd Ward, left, and Sharon Letson, executive director of Youngstown CityScape.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.