Profile: Hugh Dorrian, Auditor, City of Columbus

Bob Vitale
Columbus CEO
Columbus City Auditor Hugh Dorrian

City government is preparing to issue $314.1 million in bonds to pay for street repairs, construction projects and other big-ticket items. Before that happens, though, representatives of the New York rating agencies are scheduled to visit Columbus in September to hear from city officials about the local economy, job outlook and budget projections for 2018 and beyond.

Their decision on the credit-worthiness of city government will determine the interest rates that Columbus—or Columbus taxpayers, to be more precise—will pay to undertake its capital projects.

But have no fear. City Auditor Hugh Dorrian will be in the room. And that means Columbus will get the highest possible credit ratings and the lowest available interest rates, just as it has throughout his 48 years in office.

It likely will be Dorrian's last such meeting, though. The city's 82-year-old auditor has decided to retire at the end of this year after 12 terms in office and a career that has established Columbus as one of the nation's most financially stable big cities.

Here are a couple measures of Dorrian's career using some of those numbers he loves so much:

• Annual revenue projections, which set the parameters for the budgets developed by six Columbus mayors and about 50 City Council members, have totaled $18.2 billion during his career.

• He has overseen the issuance of $34.8 billion in municipal securities, short-term notes, and long-term bonds and loans for the city.

• Columbus voters have approved 78 of 82 bond issues placed on the ballot since 1966, when he first went to work for the city.

But beyond the numbers, political and business leaders say Dorrian's influence can be seen in everything from a filled pothole to a newly built fire station to a company's decision to relocate or expand in central Ohio.

“When you're in a national or an international competition for businesses, they can go anywhere, and they're looking at you very intensely,” says Kenny McDonald, president and chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, the regional economic development agency. “A solvent city with its finances in order gives businesses confidence. It gives them predictability.”

Columbus city finances have been so stable for so long under Dorrian's watch, though, that “it's beyond predictability,” McDonald says.

“It's almost a certainty that the city's going to be in good shape.”

Dorrian, whose City Hall office looks out toward his boyhood home of Franklinton, still uses words such as “gee” and apologizes when talking about himself. He shares any credit he's given for fiscal stewardship.

He says he's worked with great people, in his own office and in offices throughout city government. He credits the late Mayor M.E. Sensenbrenner, who appealed to Dorrian's sense of duty and pushed him to accept an appointment as city treasurer, for policies that ensured Columbus' growth through annexation and its ability to pay for new roads and other projects.

Dorrian talks about government and corporate leaders, OSU officials and Columbus residents all doing their part over the years by making smart financial decisions and backing city initiatives such as a 2009 ballot issue that raised the local income tax.

So forgive the man who has kept Columbus' books for 23 percent of its 205-year history when he finally acknowledges that he, too, has had a role.

“Well,” he says with a bit of hesitation. “I like to think I contributed to those things. But, absolutely, it was not a singular effort.”

‘You Should Serve'

Dorrian said “no” more than once in November 1965 when Democrats who had just won control of the Columbus City Council offered him the patronage post of city treasurer. He had just lost his first race for city auditor—“got my ears pinned back pretty well”—and wanted to work for himself.

Then Sensenbrenner called.

“Mayor Sensenbrenner was somewhat of a biblical scholar. He was a Bible salesman in his private life,” Dorrian says of the man who also worked as a newspaper reporter, stuntman and ditch-digger. “I remember him saying to me, ‘Young man, I want you to remember, when you are called, you should serve.' And in about three minutes, I was saying, ‘Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir, and I took the job.”

The US Army veteran who graduated from Ohio State University on the GI Bill started work for the city on Jan. 3, 1966. Mel Dodge, the recreation and parks director who had been playground supervisor at Sunshine (now Dodge) Park when Dorrian was a boy, stopped in to offer some advice: “Behave yourself.”

Within three years, the 74-year-old Republican who had defeated Dorrian in 1965 died in office. Dorrian accepted his second offer of appointment from City Hall Democrats more quickly and became the city auditor in September 1969. He went on to win election that November and every four years since.

Sensenbrenner's photo still hangs on Dorrian's wall, overlapping a map of Ireland, where his mother was born and his father had roots.

“Maybe in some circles this would sound corny, but I was always taught to appreciate this country,” he says. “Mother and Dad never went past sixth grade of school; that's all they had to (do) in the old country. Sixth grade, then you went and tended the fields.”

His parents came to the United States separately (his father from Scotland) but met in Pittsburgh, where Dorrian's mother was a maid to the Mellon family. “If I have any financial acumen, it started in the womb,” he jokes. Like others, they followed the job market, first to Wheeling, W.Va., where Dorrian was born in 1935 as the seventh of eight children, then to Columbus.

Dorrian's father eventually bought his own business, a little grocery shop on the East Side, and then another on N. High Street in the University District.

He warns again that it might sound corny, “but I still believe this is the best country in the world, where the greatest opportunity is.”

Mr. Dorrian

Michael Coleman first met Dorrian as a 28-year-old City Council aide. He went on to his own career on the City Council before winning election as mayor in 1999. He still refers to the city auditor as “Mr. Dorrian.”

“Mr. Dorrian is probably one of the most important political and business figures in the history of our city,” says Coleman, whose 16 years as mayor make him Columbus' longest-serving chief executive but cover only a third of Dorrian's tenure.

Coleman was in his third term in the fall of 2008 when the Great Recession first wiped out plans for a streetcar line and then began having far more serious consequences. He cut 170 jobs, including an entire police recruit class.

Dorrian needed to revise his estimates as the economy got worse. An $83 million gap between 2008 spending and projected 2009 tax collections grew to $112 million.

“There used to be a time when Columbus was viewed as recession-proof. In 2008, 2009, we were in a crisis,” Coleman recalls. “We met every day for months, trying to figure out what to do. … Mr. Dorrian had sleepless nights, and so did I. It was excruciating.”

City leaders scheduled a special election for Columbus voters to decide on the first proposed local income-tax increase in 27 years. Coleman and Dorrian campaigned for the measure—it called for the rate to rise from 2 percent to 2.5 percent—and won endorsements from the Columbus Partnership and Columbus Chamber. It won by 3,050 votes out of more than 89,000 cast.

“We're in the midst of the longest and deepest recession of my career, and we go to the public and ask for a tax increase,” Dorrian says. “Getting it passed was pretty monumental. I think it gets back to the fact that most people in the community like Columbus, they like the environment that we're in. I think it's our responsibility to keep it that way.”

Without that tax increase, Dorrian and Coleman say, mass layoffs of police and firefighters and the inability to keep up with basics such as street repairs, snow removal and trash pickup would have made Columbus far less attractive to business.

And in a city dependent on income taxes for a huge portion of its budget, keeping jobs in town is crucial.

“We would be a different city,” says Coleman, who left office in 2015 and now directs business and government strategies for the Ice Miller law firm.

“We would be living in a different city today,” echoes Dorrian.

Working Together

Dorrian says he doesn't see a struggle between the public and private sectors. He backed the 2011 purchase of Nationwide Arena by the city and Franklin County as a way to keep the Columbus Blue Jackets and jobs from going elsewhere. He favored deals to aid development of Easton Town Center and Polaris Fashion Place.

“I don't think either of us should be in the other's way,” he says. “When you look at Columbus and you see all these recent statistics about the growth in population and so forth, as I've said, somebody's got to be doing something right around here. You see all these people coming to Columbus. Business has been doing well and is attractive to them. The medical environment is attractive to them. The education environment is attractive to them.”

And, according to McDonald, the city is attractive to them.

“If the city isn't healthy, the region suffers,” McDonald says. “The center of our region is the city of Columbus. It's the front door. When people come through that front door and they see things being improved, that does a tremendous amount for how they perceive this whole region.”

City Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson, who chairs the body's finance committee, meets with Dorrian every other Monday. She also listens in on sessions with bond-rating agencies that regularly evaluate Columbus.

“Part of that rating is based on the administration of our city,” Tyson says. “The credibility he holds with those rating agencies is key.”

Dorrian says the biggest mistake he has seen during his decades in office was a purely public venture: a trash-burning power plant approved by voters in the 1970s, built on the South Side in the 1980s, closed in the 1990s and torn down in 2005. Conceived as a way to solve two problems—trash disposal and energy production—it ended up causing air pollution and financial headaches.

Dorrian opposed the project and to this day regrets not speaking out against it more adamantly.

Voice of Experience

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says American workers had a median tenure of 4.2 years with their current employers in 2016. Payroll records show one person—Columbus Police Lt. Karl Barth, a 77-year-old, 56-year veteran of the force—has worked for city government longer than Dorrian.

Dorrian says he had a couple offers over the years to leave City Hall for the private sector or other political office. He ran for mayor in 1975 and finished fourth in a six-way primary. “I think God sent me a message that time. I think he said, ‘I'd rather you stay as city auditor.'”

Coleman, who says he bonded with Dorrian during the Great Recession, decided on his 60th birthday in 2014 not to seek another term as mayor. Dorrian ran for and won five more terms after his own 60th.

“He loves the city and he loves his job,” Coleman says. “He gets there at the same time every day. He has lunch at the same time every day. Tommy's or the Florentine: You always knew where to get him.”

Dorrian says experience and longevity lend themselves to stability, discipline and institutional memory.

But even after nearly half a century in the same faux-wood-paneled City Hall office, Dorrian says it has been the constant flow of new issues that has kept the job interesting.

Hasn't he seen it all? Hardly.

“How about Smart City?” he says of Columbus' designation last year by the US Department of Transportation as an incubator for public and private efforts that will use new technology to address regional transportation needs.

“How about (autonomous) cars? How about a big issue that it isn't going to be solved overnight but I think in this community we have to solve, and that's mass transit.”

Dorrian's decision to retire is more a concession to age than a charge into the next chapter. And the man who has had all the answers at City Hall for decades isn't quite sure what comes next.

“I don't love the job any less, but I am 82 years old,” he says. “I just said it's time. I'm going to go through emotional trauma, I'm sure. How do you go from 100 mph and then stop?”

Dorrian doesn't have any big plans. He and Janice, his wife of 53 years, have 10 grandchildren, “so I'm sure they'll think of something,” he says.

Nearing the end of his 48-year career in elected office, the most reliable official at Columbus City Hall, who literally wears both a belt and suspenders—often just a metaphor for cautiousness and care—concedes one thing: “The only thing certain is change.”

“But I mentioned that Smart City thing,” he says. “You're not going to get me in an autonomous car, I'll tell you that.”

Bob Vitale is the associate editor.

Hugh Dorrian

Auditor, City of Columbus

In Position: Since 1969

Previous: City of Columbus treasurer, 1966-69; CPA with private firm, 1959-65

Education: Bachelor of Science in business administration, Ohio State University, 1959

Honors: National Management Association Hall of Fame; City of Columbus Hall of Fame; Award of Financial Reporting Achievement from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada, 1979-2015; Minority/Female Business Advocate Award from the Columbus Equal Business Opportunity Department

City of Columbus

90 W. Broad St., Columbus 43215

About: A population of 860,090 makes Columbus the biggest city in Ohio and the 14th biggest in the United States. The mayor, seven-member City Council, city auditor and city attorney are elected separately.

Founded: 1812

Budget: $872.7 million general fund, $861.4 million capital budget

Employees: 9,948


Why did you decide to retire?

I don't love the job any less, but I am 82 years old. ... If I ran again and the good Lord left me on this earth that long, I'd be up a few years again. I said to myself, it's time.

There's a perception that you are the one reining in spending at City Hall. Is that true?

One of the very strongest features in our City Charter is … separation of power. Every year I've got to sit down and make a big guess as to what kind of money will come in for the city to operate on in the coming year. … Then the mayor cannot propose a budget and the council cannot appropriate more than that to run the city. … So I don't know that it's reining people in, but I like to be prudent in financial matters.

How are relations between the city government and its business leadership?

I always try to think of a community impact as opposed to we vs. they because I think for the whole community to flourish—not only financially, but in a peaceful environment and so forth—all the parties, whether it's business or whether it's government, whether it's the nonprofit arenas, social services and so forth, we all have to recognize and understand that we each have a role. It's not a we vs. they environment. I hope it never becomes an environment like that.

Did you ever consider leaving city government for the private sector?

I fell in love with government service, so I never really seriously thought about going elsewhere. Some of my critics say I could never find another job. Maybe they're right. I don't know. Maybe they're right.

You've been in office for 12 full terms, a total of 48 years. What do you think of term limits?

When term limits first focused, it had some attraction to it. I remember those days when I wavered between liking them and not liking them; you know it was the committee systems (then based on solely on seniority in Congress and the Ohio General Assembly) that I hoped we could do something about. … But the voting of your representatives, let the voters call that stuff. I don't think you're going to see term limits go away because it has somewhat of a sanctimonious image to it, to protect the public from the ‘evil' office holders, but I'm not a champion of term limits.