A letter that arrived in many Neosho mailboxes Tuesday sparked contentious debate during Tuesday night’s Neosho City Council meeting, and prompted the opening of former closed records regarding the American Legion Post 4142.
Richard Davidson, Neosho mayor, said he had received calls from residents that water rates could soon go down, according to a couple of councilmen. Davidson questioned how that could be, as it was just explained at the council meeting earlier this month that paying off millions of dollars in loans for recent water and sewer projects, with more such projects planned, would preclude reducing rates in the near future.
The mayor said those residents got that idea from the letter, that implied water rates would be reduced depending to how next week’s election goes. The letter in question is an endorsement for Heather Bowers to be elected to Neosho City Council in the April 8 elections, signed by councilmen David Ruth and Steve Hart, who serve as Bowers’ campaign treasurer, and chairman, respectively.
Since his name is on the letter, Ruth volunteered that he was confused two weeks ago when it was stated that the city was required to have $2 million reserves in the water fund, and 110 percent of the annual loan payment in the bank. Troy Royer, city manager, advised Ruth that is the requirement for the low-interest loan the city received to do the work, and added that another $1 million reserves in that fund are for future improvements, as the city has extensive additional sewer improvements that are mandated by the Department of Natural Resources.
Davidson then questioned why the letter states that a vote for someone will mean lower water and sewer rates.
Hart answered, “We’re not supposed to be making money. As years go on,” he asked, “we’re not going to give people a break?”
Royer responded, “As long as we have these improvements we need to make, these funds will go there.”
Under continual questioning by Hart, Royer said rates could be looked at possibly some time in the future, but with 60 percent water loss reported on the latest city audit, there is still work to be done.
After the meeting, Hart reiterated that the city needs to look at how water rates might be reduced. He said rates have taken a drastic increase in the last few years, “And it’s put a lot of people in a bind…on fixed incomes and things.” Hart said, “I think we ought to do whatever it takes to reduce any rate.”
He said there are legalities the city must abide by, “But it doesn’t mean we can’t look at it every six months to try to find a solution for those rates.”
Hart has no specific ideas, but said, “I don’t think we’ve ever really dove into it and looked at it like we need to. We’ve thrown it out here and said we can’t do it, and that’s part of the problem.”
Davidson said the council discussed just two weeks ago that reducing water rates was an option, but the sacrifice of losing the low-interest financing from the state by doing so would lead to millions of dollars of extra interest, negating any reduction in water rates to pay more interest. He said he received calls because two councilmen signed the letter.
Davidson said, “The candidate didn’t sign that letter, it was a letter from two councilmen, and it directly conflicts with what this council discussed just two weeks ago.”
Davidson calls it a fair statement that council needs to look at lowering water rates where ever possible; but added, “To say, if you elect a certain person next week, your water rates are going to go down; that’s not the same thing. That’s what the letter said.
He said the council clarified Tuesday night that there are restrictions on the loan that require keeping money in the bank according the state’s formula, and the city must live by their rules, regardless of who is on the council.
Even as reserves might be built higher in the coming years, Davidson said the city has $3 million to $4 million in repairs they will be required to perform, citing 2016 as when those are mandated.
“We’re building money in the city coffers every day to help pay for those repairs, and once we get enough money in there we’ll make those repairs,” he said.
Davidson said the city can’t lower rates, cut reserves and make more and more required repairs.
The mayor said the same letter to residents from the two councilmen indicated that the city is not living up to its agreement with the American Legion. That was also a point of contention; and in order to discuss the issue, the council voted unanimously to open those closed records.
Prior to that vote, Steven Hays, city attorney, explained that city officials conducted a walk-through last week of the police building where the Legion conducts its business. Hays said they held discussions about the judge’s order regarding the lawsuit, and they are waiting to receive a date to hold mediation to hopefully mutually benefit both parties. Hays said the hope is to resolve the issue short of a full trial.
Once the closed records were opened, Hart responded that the city has had 10 years to settle this matter, “And now it’s an election issue and we open it up. I wonder why it takes 10 years to get to this point. It’s terrible the way we’ve done this. They are owed something, and it’s taken 10 years.”
He said something should have been done a long time ago to alleviate the problem.
“They’ve got a rightful position;” said Hart, “and whether we agree, as this council, that we’re bound by this contract, we need to get a solution to it.”
Davidson said the statement in the letter implying that council was not living up to its agreement is not true, and the only way to legally discuss the issue was to open the records.
“So it was a balancing act.” Davidson said. “Do you open the records and do so while you’re in litigation with the American Legion? Or do you just let statements be made that you can’t defend because the records are closed?”
Davidson said opening those records clearly shows that council has tried to be accommodating to the Legion, “But at the same time, all five members of the council weren’t willing to do anything outside the agreement; all of a sudden we have two council members who say we should do more, but those same council members have voted all along not to go along with other options that exist.”
Davidson said opening the records was the right thing to do so the voters can see what has happened and that council has been working on this.
Explaining why no agreement has been formulated in the last few years since the lawsuit was filed, Hart said, “I don’t think we’ve ever sat down with them; we’ve always had the attorneys set down, and I do believe that if people sit down, solutions can be found.”
Hart said he would have liked to have seen Legion members be invited to the council to work out the problems.
Davidson said the issue with the Legion stems from a 2004 agreement that the Legion could not receive title to the land until all police activities cease there. He said the Legion continues to use the building, but does not have ownership. Davidson said the Legion felt enough time had passed.
“I agreed with them; but because of the 2009/2010 financial collapse, we weren’t able to build alternate storage facilities for our police records and our evidence room,” he said.
He explained that moving police evidence would put many felony cases at risk because of the possibility of the contamination of evidence, or the insinuation of that by defense attorneys if the evidence were to be moved.
Davidson said the city has offered the Legion more rooms, places at The Civic to use, “But they want the whole thing,” he said, “and we’re in a position where we can’t move out of what little space we’re still taking up there; and without doing that, we can’t comply with the requirements; and it needs to be resolved and we’re working on ways to resolve it.”
Davidson said council was updated in closed session three months ago on ways they can move forward responsibly to find solutions, and the PD is working on those today.
“We’re not trying to hurt anybody; we’re living with a contract that none of us wrote and we’re trying to do our best to make it right for everybody,” the mayor said.
Hart said he is pleased to open the records.
“I think that’s great,” he said. “Any time the public wants to see something, I’m for them coming down; and anything we can show them and be open with, the better. That’s the people we serve, that’s the people that we’re supposed to be making decisions for, so why wouldn’t we want to open up and tell them what they want to hear,” he concluded.
Davidson concluded that everything council has discussed about the issue is now open to the public, “So anybody that wants to know the truth can request the documents and see it. The reality is that solutions have been brought up before; by consensus, the entire council has stuck by the original agreement and said, ‘Hey, we’ll give it to you as soon as we’re out of that building.’”
Prior to those discussions, council gave Nora Houdyshell, city clerk, approval to draft a resolution for opening closed records. Details on that, and the other actions by Neosho City Council Tuesday evening, will be available in Thursday’s Neosho Daily News.