Hart apologizes for previous remarks; Ruth walks out

The Neosho City Council on Tuesday completed their initial review of the proposed 2014 budget, and asked the city's department directors to find additional cuts before the council's next budget work session.

However, before the council members continued their budget review, the council first held a public hearing for the city's property tax rate for the coming year, and heard a public statement from Mayor Pro Tem Steve Hart in regards to his remarks in an earlier council session.

Hart said he wanted to apologize to the citizens he had offended, after the city received an anonymous letter citing Hart's comments made in the July 29 city council budget work session, regarding ADA compliance.

"It made me realize that sitting on this council I need to be at a higher standard than what I am in day to day life," Hart said. "It was something that I supposedly said several weeks ago, and like I said, I've decided it's a plus that they sent me this letter because it really doesn't matter if it's true or false, because if someone thinks that I offended them I want to make sure that they know that was not my intent and I do apologize for anybody that I might have offended."

In the July 29 meeting, council members were discussing the Parks and Recreation budget, in which one of the proposed projects (which has now been removed from the budget proposal) was the addition of a concrete ramp at the Big Spring Park wading pool, intended to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In that work session, Hart expressed concerns that the city could be called out on not being ADA compliant with the staircase in Big Spring Park, which the city is currently having restored.

"The stairs take you from Point A to Point B, you can get to Point B without going on the stairs," said Neosho Mayor Richard Davidson. "It's not as if those stairs take you to a level or elevation you can't get to in a wheelchair, it's just a different route in a wheelchair."

Referring to the wading pool also being compliant, Hart responded, "We could stand out there with a hose and say 'here, we'll get you just as wet.'"

On Tuesday, Hart offered an apology to those who his comment may have offended, though he noted that he had been misunderstood.

He called forward a wheelchair-bound member of the audience, whom he identified as a friend of his, and addressed his apology to him.

"Lee, I want you to know I would never say anything like that about you or anybody," Hart said. "So, I'll apologize to you personally for everybody. I want everyone to hear this and I want you to hear this, Lee, I want everybody to hear me and not be misunderstood like I was two weeks ago. Lee, people like you are heroes of mine."

Following Hart's statement, the council opened the public hearing for the city's property tax rate, though no members of the public spoke in the hearing.

The rate will remain the same, at .4256 cents per $100 assessed valuation, the maximum allowed.

Council members also completed their initial review of the 80-page draft budget, though the council is scheduled to hold at least two more budget work sessions, scheduled for 6 p.m. the remaining two Tuesdays of the month.

The proposed budget shows $16.6 million in expenditures, $15.3 million in revenues, and calls for reserve spending, including $440,000 for the general fund, intended in part to cover the expiration of the $400,000 SAFER grant, which had been helping fund the Neosho Fire Department for the past two years.

Councilmen Hart and David Ruth oppose the reserve spending.

"We have to make tough decisions," Hart said. "We can't be dropping $400,000 and $500,000 a year. The city cannot do that. We don't have the budget to be dropping that much money. I would like to see a new budget with cuts, that's what the city manager gets paid for. I want to see that number lower, that's the next thing I'd like to see, is somehow how we can get close to a balanced budget. That's what this city deserves and needs. And until we do that I'm against this budget."

About 30 minutes into the budget work session, Ruth expressed his displeasure for the proposed budget by walking out of the evening's meeting.

"I've got somewhere else I could be tonight, I already know how I'm going to vote on this budget, there's no need in me wasting my time going over figures in this budget because it's not going to change my position on the budget," Ruth said. "So I think I'm kind of wasting my time here so I'll excuse myself and if you guys want to go through it, go through it and I think everyone probably understands my position on the budget by now."
Davidson noted that with the SAFER grant ending this year, the city had been planning to spend reserves in the 2014 budget.

"We said for two years, when that SAFER grant expired that we were working forward to the day that we could replace that SAFER grant and we'd have the money in reserves to do that in 2014," Davidson said. "We worked on that, that didn't happen by accident."

Councilman Charles Collinsworth said he too would like to see the reserve spending go down, and encouraged the city's department directors to find areas they could cut. Though, Collinsworth noted that he does not want to see the city cutting from emergency services.

"I don't want to go back with higher crime rates," Collinsworth said, referring to a time when the police department was cut by several officers. "I want to see precise, smart cuts."

In addition to the reserve spending, Hart also objected to the city spending anymore money on legal fees regarding their challenge of the Neosho Transportation Development District.

"I have to say that this appeal against the TDD has worn me slick and I am at the point where I want to see us get out of it," Hart said. "We have spent $34,723 since January 1 and have nothing to show for it."

Hart said he wanted to make a motion that the city drop their appeal of the court ruling against their legal challenge of the TDD, though Davidson noted that the TDD appeal was not on the agenda for Tuesday evening's work session and therefore, could not be addressed at that time.

Collinsworth said he would be open to discussing the issue in next week's council meeting, though he wanted to stick to making it through the proposed budget for the current work session.

Both Hart and Ruth requested that the TDD appeal matters be discussed in open session in the future. Council usually addresses the TDD issues in closed session, as is commonly done with legal issues.

The council members will meet for their fourth budget work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20 at city hall council chambers, with the bi-monthly city council meeting set to follow at 7 p.m.

Council is expected to have a budget ready to vote on in September, and should have one in place when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Davidson said if a budget were not in place by Oct. 1 the current year's budget would carry over until a new one is in place.