By Allen Edmonds
Tonight’s meeting of the Belton City Council could be the fiscal showdown citizens appear to want, or it could fizzle into a unanimous (or nearly unanimous) rubber stamp of what appears to be the extravagant spending plans of a city staff accustomed to presenting only one option for elected officials to consider.
Tops on the mind of citizens as the council considers final approval of the Fiscal 2021 budget is a city water rate increase of 12 percent – 10 percent to begin work on major infrastructure repairs and 2 percent to keep up with rate increases imposed by Kansas City, Belton’s water supplier. It’s clearly a sensitive issue. Watching Mayor Jeff Davis try to bully Ward 1 Councilmember Dave Clark into keeping quiet about the issue during the meeting two weeks ago certainly illustrated that.
Users got a break last week when they found out that Kansas City will only impose a 2 percent rate hike this year, as opposed to the 4 percent city staff had predicted in its proposed budget.
This is on top of water bills that already compete with those issued monthly by electricity supplier Evergy and gas supplier Spire, and it seems to be the final straw for a Belton electorate that over the past several years: approved revenue bonds for a new water tower, water treatment plant and some infrastructure replacement (bonds that are already tacked on to water bills and will be for quite some time); general obligation bonds for streets and stormwater infrastructure; and a sales tax for fire and police services. Enough, apparently, is enough.
Last week, Ward 1 Councilmember Ryan Finn posted an online survey on his Facebook page asking citizens whether or not they supported the survey. He made sure to explain the consequences for not improving the plan (the expense of continued emergency infrastructure repairs). As of today, 427 votes had been recorded – 88 in favor and 339 against, a nearly 4 to 1 margin. This, of course, is an unscientific poll. Voters in the poll are not required to be registered voters in the city, as evidenced by the “yes” vote of Sheila Ernzen, the city’s finance director and assistant city manager. Also voting yes on Finn’s poll was City Manager Alexa Barton.
Interestingly, among the no votes was Finn’s fellow Ward 1 councilmember, Clark. We’ll see if that vote is repeated tonight.
But “no” votes alone are pointless without a proposed alternative. It should be the responsibility of city staff to provide those alternatives to the council for discussion as part of any request this drastic, but that didn’t happen. The only reasonable alternative, truly, is another year of emergency repairs while the council takes on the project of truly analyzing alternatives – such as selling the system to outside provider that would be overseen by the Missouri Public Service Commission, or creative financing methods such as refinancing bonds. So, if staff is unable or unwilling to fully present alternative options, it’s up to our elected officials to propose them.
Meanwhile, another bullet point in this year’s budget proposal is the request by outgoing Police Chief Jim Person for $50,000 for a search firm to find his replacement (Person will retire a year from next month) and a whopping $170,000 to fund salary and benefits for the new chief, so he or she can serve alongside Person during the upcoming budget year.
Person justified his request to the City Council last month, and has issued a written version of that defense here.
All his reasoning is certainly understandable as a wish list, and it would be wonderful to have the luxury of being able to provide that level of preparedness and organization.
But it is extravagant. It’s typical of an ideal plan submitted by a department manager that an effective city manager would trim to an affordable level before submitting to the elected officials.
And Belton is not in the position for extravagance. This City Hall has been granted bond issue and sales tax approvals from the public, and is already signaling a desire to retry a use tax question in the near future. Still, it seems unable to maintain what it has financially. We’ll all know much more if the state audit petition drive is successful and that process is completed, but those answers are more than a year out under the best of hopes.
Again, this calls for creativity. What’s wrong with naming a local committee comprised of law enforcement representatives from various agencies in the region, the Prosecuting Attorney’s office, business leaders and citizens, to serve as a search committee for the new police chief?
We can’t forget that in the past year, we replaced our fire chief without hiring a search firm, and the natural question to ask would be why wouldn’t the same have been done for that equal public safety agency?
And finally, the question must be asked as to just how much influence we want the outgoing chief to have over the new chief. Assuming the successful candidate is qualified to run a department of this size, there should be relatively little training. Local department and community intel should be shared with the new chief by existing command staff, including the detective and officer lineup.
These aren’t nearly all the questions that should be asked regarding the budget proposal, but they’re certainly the most obvious ones. Anyone willing to place any bets on what goes on tonight? Not me.