There’s an introspective glint in David Kukucka’s eyes as he sits back, coffee in hand.
“It was time,” he says, explaining why he chose not to seek another term as Amherst city auditor. “First, I was getting this promotion at work.”
The Kukuckas are empty-nesters. They’ve been married 30 years this month and the longtime auditor said he wants more time with his wife.
Their daughter has graduated from college. Their son plays football for Otterbein, which has meant traveling on weekends to watch the Cardinals.
“I had to make a decision between watching him play or spending the fall going door-to-door” campaigning, Kukucka said.
When he steps down Dec. 31, Amherst will lose its longest-tenured elected official.
Voters picked Kukucka, a Democrat, in 1991 to represent Amherst’s fourth ward. He served on city council for 10 years, moving into an at-large seat, then took a four-year break before jumping back into public office in 2005 when voters elected him auditor.
As auditor, city finances are his realm — but when Kukucka addresses council today, it’s often about policy and pulls from his combined 22 years of experience.
Frequently, he offers council members advice. For example, he’s spoken from memory not just when Amherst’s street repair tax was founded but the reasons voiced at the time. Kukucka said he sometimes feels like council’s historian.
His job for the past 12 years and seven months has been to track finances, build budgets, approve payments, and invest the city’s money.
When Kukucka took over for departing auditor Diane Eswine midway through her final year in office, he remembers being surprised to discover the shape the city was in.
“It was better than what I thought it would be,” he said. “Coming into it, Diane was painting this dire straits picture of Amherst and it ended up not being that way.”
“Actually, we have more challenges today with everything that’s been taken away from the city, like local government funding, the inheritance tax… we’re actually doing very well, though.”
Amherst’s books are stable. It’s ability to go out for bonding, which could happen next year, is strong.
Kukucka doesn’t take sole credit for how Amherst weathered the Great Recession from 2008 to 2012. He said former mayor David Taylor’s administration worked hand-in-hand with city council to shepherd the city through economic threats.
Taylor’s “hold on the purse strings” kept the city safe, he said. According to Kukucka, former treasurer Kathy Litkovitz always joked that Taylor treated the budget like it was his wallet, and if the mayor gave you a number, that was the amount you had to spend, not a penny more.
It hasn’t always been easy.
The biggest frustration in office was the fallout when improper Ohio Public Employee Retirement System deductions were brought to light by deputy auditor Gwen Melbar. Kukucka said contributions for 91 city employees were calculated incorrectly over an 11-year period that stretched back to Eswine’s tenure, but numerous state audits of Amherst’s books didn’t catch the problem.
Current mayor Mark Costilow eventually offered a pay-out to employees — collectively a little more than $123,000 — to settle the issue and avoid a lawsuit. For the auditor, it was a political blow that played into a failed mayoral bid against Costilow.
As he prepares to leave, Kukucka said Amherst city council needs to keep careful watch over its water, sewer, and electricity accounts and make sure they don’t deplete. But in the event of a $1 million windfall, he’d use it to shore up the general fund, which is the most vulnerable of the city’s accounts.
The biggest threat he sees in the next decade? The state of Ohio.
Kukucka said the General Assembly wants to seize control of all municipal income tax collections statewide, which he believes would be devastating.
Amherst is involved in a lawsuit right now against the state, in which a coalition of cities argues that recent changes to net-profit income tax returns for businesses are unconstitutional. The changes allow businesses to file returns directly with the Ohio Department of Taxation rather than the municipality where they are located; the state then gets to eek the local share back to cities, charging a half-percent fee for the service.
The outbound auditor said he believes the scheme is just the beginning in a statewide takeover.
It’s a warning he plans to pass on to new auditor Derek Pittak, a Republican who won the office this year unopposed in either primary or general election.
He’ll also ask Pittak, who has the power to make staff changes, to keep Melbar on as well as clerk Carole Shawver. He plans to introduce the auditor-elect to both workers soon; the hand-off process will also include a primer about day-to-day responsibilities, procedures, and rules.
Kukucka’s big advice for Pittak: “When you go to meetings, make sure you have your information,” he said, referencing the binder of dog-eared pages he’s carried for 12 years. “I’ll show him what I bring, because it does help to have everything in your hands.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.