Neosho has climbed a long way out of the hole the city dug for itself several years ago,

Neosho has climbed a long way out of the hole the city dug for itself several years ago,

“And will be back on solid Terra Firma within a few more years.” That’s one of the messages of Richard Davidson, Neosho mayor, after leading a quarterly town hall style meeting Monday evening in the Neosho Golf Course Club House.

Davidson told those assembled that the city has held this series of open, two-way dialogue sessions since 2010, and said he and other city official are, “Here to inform you. We can agree to disagree.”
The mayor first explained the city’s recently released annual audit, with the preface that prior to 2010, the city was not prepared for audits.

He said, “When I first came on the council, I heard terrible horror stories about how city staff was not cooperative with the auditors, information was not always presented that was 100 percent factual.”

He said preparations for auditors were not completed in several areas, and added, “It was a wreck.”
Then, he said, the city steamrolled into fiscal problems.

Davidson said, “We have come full-circle on that and turned the city around to the point where we received another clean audit, we received praise from the auditor on our efforts to keep the city’s finances stable, and we continue to move the city forward every day.”

The mayor quoted Andrew Marmouget, KPM CPAs, who led the audit, and said the city has seen, “A dramatic change” over the past three years.

Davidson said the clean audit validates the recovery plan enacted in 2010.

“What we have been able to accomplish in the last three or four years is not an accident,” he said. “We laid a plan out in 2010 that was a difficult plan, it required impacting people’s lives with some layoffs, but it was necessary for the long-term viability of the city.”

He said the plan was to start building reserves and to re-staff police and fire to maintain a level of protection for citizens while being financially responsible and live within their means.

Davidson reported that fire, police and streets are the top three expenses for the city, and that fire and police staffing are, “Now at a point where we see crime rates reduced, and response times reduced.
We’re also seeing reserves sitting there for unplanned emergencies.”

He said the city is now doing more, with less.

The mayor explained that reserves help smooth fluctuations in revenues, allow for planned and unplanned events, and will help to cover debts through 2016.

“We have to get over a debt hump until 2016,” he said.

Davidson said the city’s general fund now carries reserves of $2 million, and that $2 million of the $3 million in reserve in the water fund is required by the low-interest loan the city received to finance recent water and sewer projects.

Davidson said former city manager Jan Blase elt reserves were “functionally obsolete.”

He advises Neosho residents that property tax rates are now on the downfall, as they were raised to enact the plan to dig out from the massive financial hole. Davidson said that was announced as a short-term solution to find money.

“And as the city has started to get over the hump and build reserves, 2014 is a perfect indication that we have followed through with our commitment to the voters and our funds were replenished that we would start cutting back those taxes,” the mayor said.

He said property taxes for the current 2014 fiscal year were reduced by 10 percent on a three-to-two vote.

“And if I have my way with things and if they continue as I expect they will, we’ll be able to see further reductions in the future,” said Davidson.

The mayor explained the proposed ethics provision to the city charter that will go before voters on April 8, and why it needs to go to the voters and not be something approved by city council.

“It ensures elected officials perform their duties in an ethical manner; and it would be in the city charter, so only the voters can change them,”  he said.

Davidson said the ethics proposal is probably one of the biggest pieces of legislation that has been brought to the voters. He explained that an ethics code was adopted by council in 2010, based on what had occurred in the previous couple of years.

“But we didn’t expect that we’d ever have an issue where there was an attempt to repeal that ethics code,” Davidson said. “But that did happen last fall, and luckily by a vote of three-to-two that repeal failed.”

Davidson continued that the council member who proposed repealing the ethics code, then queried whether the repeal would be retroactive, which raised many red flags.

He said, “It was at that point that we discovered that the only way to prevent elected officials who are supposed to be governed by that code from actually repealing that code is to put it in the charter.”

If enacted by voters one week from today, Davidson said the ethics provisions call for penalties up to removal of office. He said the proposed provisions protect against the use of public property, conflicts of interest, influencing city business with a business in which a council member has an interest or for whom they work, appearing in a proceeding adverse to the city unless under subpoena, and disclosing or using confidential information obtained by being on the council.

Davidson objects to the argument that state law is strong enough, explaining there is no penalty in the state code for using confidential information; and added that cases brought by the state can be very time consuming. He also discounted the notion that local ethics provisions to a city’s charter violate the Sunshine Law, and that they would mean elected officials could not contact law enforcement about illegal activity.

Davidson said the measure is on the ballot next week for Neosho citizens to decide if ethics are important to them, and then they want to put those provisions in the charter so that only the voters are responsible for changing the law, not the council members who would be held accountable by those.

In the question and comment section, citizen Gene Franklin said he likes the ethics proposal, and likes putting it to a vote of the people.

Referencing the previous city council, Franklin said, “You can’t play fast and loose with the facts.”

He said the four major projects that helped get the city into its financial mess were not in fact approved by voters, as the council approved them when there was a question of the percentage constituted by a “four-sevenths” majority; which has since been rectified by the state legislature.

Franklin concluded, “This council is doing a good job.”

Looking toward the end of 2014, Davidson expressed hopefulness that online billing will be available in the city’s water department this year. He said several street repair projects this year include Industrial Drive, High Street, and Missouri Highway 59, south of Malcolm Mosby Drive. Davidson also promised completion of the curb and sidewalk project on East Spring Street, drainage improvements on Hale McGinty Drive, a sewer line to Morse Park, and the best “Celebrate Neosho” yet this summer.

Resident J.C. Herrell explained to the mayor that the city could save some funds by changing its late payment policy regarding water bills. With a recent Friday due date, Herrell said he was out of town, but paid his bill the following Monday morning. He paid the $1.25 late fee, but since that was not posted on the bill — which he feels it should be — an extra receipt had to be generated.

Then, when he returned home from paying, he said a shutoff notice was delivered to his home. Wondering why after such a short time he and others would receive an obsolete shutoff notice, Herrell advised Davidson that at least a quarter of his $1.25 late fee could have been saved by the city, and that adds up over time.

Davidson responded that the city has gone back-and-forth over being lenient, and then losing revenues from those who abscond, on being too strict, and added that maybe they should look at rebalancing the policy.

The mayor concluded that Neosho has started 2014 well, and revenues are remaining fairly stable.

He said, “Things in Neosho haven’t been this good in a long time; we’ve made a significant comeback since 2009, and I think the best is yet to come.”

He said Neosho was well over its head back in 2009 and 2010, and the hole was at first dug deeper, but the climb upward since has been significant.