It's no secret that I've been a vocal opponent of a number of taxing entities that are set up by Missouri statute. Those statutes enable a handful of landowners to impose taxes and spend funds without much, if any, accountability to the voting public. And my opposition isn't because of the projects they do or the "benefits" they reportedly offer, but primarily because of their lack of accountability to anyone but themselves.
This past weekend, I attended a meeting of a local alphabet entity. I won't name the entity or the people associated with it because this article isn't about them…per se. But what I witnessed at the meeting simply reaffirmed my concerns about these entities. The meeting was all but run by a consultant and the discussions highlighted general failures by that group to follow state laws and the basic requirements for financial reporting.
One of the more egregious issues related to budgets. By law, all budgets for taxing entities must be adopted each year, must be balanced, and must be submitted to the state. At this meeting, the board learned they hadn't done their budget reporting since 2006 — you heard me – 2006! Six-plus years of collecting and spending money with no one from the state asking "Where's that budget you're required to submit to us BY LAW?" It was frustrating to hear, but it's also a product of and at least partially due to another problem — what's NOT required by law.
That "what's NOT" is training. You may find it interesting to know that the state doesn't provide much in terms of guidance when it comes to "formal" training of elected officials. In fact, the only training that I'm aware of that is "required" by statute is that for members of school districts. When I was first elected to the Neosho R-5 board in 2004, I had 12 months to do 16 hours of formal training. The training included an emphasis on school law and finance (such as submitting budgets), board policy, the Sunshine Law (the Missouri Open Meetings law), parliamentary procedure (how to run meetings), and overall roles and duties of the office. It was very informative and helped give me and other elected officials the tools we needed to do our job. It taught us the basics of what we had to do and gave us a foundation to build on. Getting people to go wasn't a problem because failing to do the training would result in your forfeiture of office!
As a city council member, there is no state requirement for any type of training. Nor is there any requirement for TDDs, CIDs and other alphabet entities to train their board members. Yet these people still collect and spend tax payer funds — tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more! And as I saw this past Saturday morning, boards without training and without an understanding of the law are at the mercy of lawyers and consultants to be told of their duties and how to do their jobs — all with little accountability.
Page 2 of 2 - That's not to say training isn't available. The Missouri Municipal League is one training entity geared toward elected councils and boards. I've been to several MML training events and strongly encourage others to do the same. And that training is important because so many laws and requirements exist that are unique to government. And with laws constantly changing and "unique" circumstances always in play, it gives officials a place to learn their role and how best to do it. Unfortunately, without a requirement to do so, many elected officials simply don't go and the taxpayers are ultimately who may suffer.
I'll wrap up today by saying that no system is perfect and mistakes are part of life. I make them, learn from them, and move on. But to see a system that is so ripe for potential abuse while at the same time is lacking in oversight and accountability is very concerning to me, not only as an elected official who has seen abuse and spent years working to recover from it, but also as a fellow taxpayer who is ultimately paying for it. What happened last week isn't unique to local alphabet entities. It's indicative of a broader problem with oversight and accountability that our officials in Jefferson City need to know about. And since these alphabet entities are statutory creatures, our state officials also need to find a way to bring more accountability and oversight to these types of entities — at least while they are spending our taxes!
Congrats to my friend Wes Franklin as the newest City of Neosho "Employee of the Quarter." He's doing a great job and we're lucky to have him. The award was well deserved!
Until next time: stay the course, keep the faith, and may God bless Neosho!
Richard Davidson is mayor of the city of Neosho.