Jim Plunkett, a candidate for the District 2 Platte County Commission seat currently held by Steve Wegner, is tired of hearing (and reading) about how the county is “on time” and “under budget” on its community center projects.
“How can that be?” Plunkett asked during a visit to The Landmark. Scanning over a copy of the county’s 2000 Park Master Plan, the numbers for the Southern and Northern Platte Community Centers highlighted in pink, Plunkett does some calculations on a well-worn Blackberry handheld computer. He is quick to point out that those numbers, a combined total of $11.5 million, don’t square with the numbers put forth by the commission in recent weeks, about $20 – 23 million.
“I don’t know how they can possibly say they’re on budget,” Plunkett said. “How can you salvage this (master plan) when you’re already $10-$11 million over? What are you going to drop now?”
Armed with highlighted copies of the county budget, master plans, auditor reports and local media clippings, Plunkett points to what he claims are multiple discrepancies.
Showing a resolution for the County Resource Center, located off I-29 near KCI, Plunkett shows a budget of $2 million for bonds, notes or lease purchase agreements in the project. Then he flips a page, showing certificates of participation worth $5.15 million.
“They’re constantly doubling all of their construction projects,” Plunkett said, adding that his numbers were sound. “I’m using the commission’s own information.”
If they’re that far over budget, then the budget isn’t balanced, “at least not by my definition,” Plunkett said. If there were revisions, “then they’re not following the master plan.”
Plunkett questioned who gave the commission the authority to back out of the master plan, as told to the voters before they elected to enact the parks and recreation sales tax.
When contacted, Wegner had questions of his own for Plunkett.
“It amazes me, it’s kind of ironic, that Mr. Plunkett didn’t start criticizing (the commission) on the community centers until he signed half million dollars worth of contracts with the commission for the community centers,” Wegner charged. “Then all of a sudden, these centers are way overpriced. He sure gets his dollars out of it.”
Plunkett, whose company JPI Glass, specializes in installing and glazing plate glass windows and doors, acknowledges that he was a recipient of community center contracts but says Wegner’s allegation was not a fair statement.
“I had nothing to do with setting up these projects…I was the low bidder,” Plunkett said. “I saved the county money.”
Plunkett said his problems with the commission’s numbers go a lot further than the community centers anyhow. He claims that they are cutting it too close with all of their spending.
“What I have a problem with is $17 million on the revenue side, and $17 million on the expenditures,” Plunkett said, flipping through pages of the Platte County budget. “They’re spending every dime. And the county’s debt service increased from $300,000 to $900,000 (under this commission).”
Plunkett said that while he believes the commissioners when they say there is money in the budget to pay for these projects now, he doesn’t believe there will be enough at the end of the tax to cover every project.
“The last time I heard of this voodoo accounting it was at Enron and it didn’t work very well with them,” Plunkett asserted. “How do you overspend by that much without cutting out? How do you overspend by $11.5 million and what programs will you cut? Look at his line item budgets. A kindergartner could have done them if they’re off by that much.”
The assertions leveled by Plunkett are nothing new for those following the District 2 race closely. In January, the central committee for the Platte County Republican party (of which Plunkett is a member) passed a resolution to send a letter to the commission “raising concerns that the projected 16.82% increase in sales tax revenue does not reflect reality and does not represent the judgment of the kind of candidates our party supports.”
County Auditor Sandra Thomas projected 7% growth in sales tax revenues for the year, noting that last year the county’s sales tax revenue grew about 2%. So far, according to numbers provided by the county, sales tax revenues have grown 5% on the year. Though Wegner has countered by saying revenue from Zona Rosa or Parkville Commons has not been realized yet, Thomas said that she is doubtful the county will see tax revenues double over the next six months.
When contacted by The Landmark, Thomas said she felt her projections were still on target.
“We’re at about 5%…I feel pretty confident that we’ll make it to my projections,” Thomas said. “I’m kind of hesitant to say that well make it to (the commission’s). I never felt comfortable with numbers they projected, if I did, why would I project my numbers?”
Thomas said that running over budget meant the county would be running a real risk of dipping into its reserves. She estimated them to be around $1.95 million.
“It sounds like a lot until you realize the county’s payroll for one month is about $900,000,” Thomas said.
County officials defend their numbers Platte County Parks and Recreation Director Brian Nowotny offers a reason for these discrepancies: the numbers have changed.
“When I came on board, there was not a plan in place,” Nowotny said. “The master plan offers a very broad picture – I liken it to a framework, a skeleton frame to start with. Then we asked, what do we want the parks department to look like? Conceptually, what do we want in parks, in community centers, in trails? Do we want partnerships?”
Nowotny said that to answer these questions, the county performed intense market studies, conducted focus groups and telephone surveys asking what county residents wanted from their voter approved park tax.
Nowotny said that the numbers Plunkett used were conceptual numbers and cost estimates based on 1999 construction numbers that were arrived at prior to the market studies.
“We stopped working off the master plan budget numbers as soon as we started working on the project officially,” Nowotny said. “The budget was refined, based upon the final needs assessment and the plans approved by the commissioners.”
Those numbers, Nowotny said, came to a total budget of a little more than $23 million, accounting for construction costs, permit and testing costs, site acquisition, furnishings and equipment and bond financing costs. Nowotny said the numbers took into account what residents said they wanted from the tax.
“We couldn’t get the final cost estimates until we received final drawings from our architects.”
Wegner asserted that when all is said and done, “in six years, the community centers, the parks, and the trails will be paid in full, with no tax increases. And that’s the bottom line.”
Wegner said the county was in healthy financial shape and didn’t need to cut projects because the county’s revenue projections had changed over time as well. While the information put out in the sales tax master plan estimates the county will only accumulate $59 million from the park sales tax, Wegner points out that the county sold its bonds on projections through George K. Baum & Company.
“They wouldn’t have sold the bonds if the projections weren’t going to meet the revenues,” Wegner said, noting that Baum & Company is an independent entity.
Wegner said Plunkett’s claims were designed to cast doubt on the commission’s fiscal responsibility during an election year.
“He is questioning my decision making ability, which is fine. This is the political arena. But what it has done is allowed me the opportunity to go back and review my processes and the steps we’ve taken to get here.”
Wegner said he held seven public meetings with a task force and 42 public meetings regarding the parks and recreation tax with the park board.
“That’s 49 public meetings, not counting the meetings the Platte County Commission had, which are all open to the public,” Wegner said.
“We didn’t just sit in a smoke-filled room and say, ‘alright, we’re going to build two community centers, the one in Parkville is going to be larger, the one in Platte City will be smaller, here’s $22 million’ and off we went,” Wegner joked.
Wegner said that even though he was initially not an advocate for the park and recreation sales tax (“too vague in some areas”), he is happy with the results of the tax.
“I’m proud of what we did,” Wegner said. “There’s no doubt about it. We did as good as we possibly could. In 20-years, people are going to go ‘wow, those commissioners had foresight.’ And Mr. Plunkett is not one of those people who has foresight, I’m sorry.”
Wegner enthusiastically agreed to debate Plunkett in a public forum. But in another visit to The Landmark, Plunkett relayed his frustrations about getting his message across to voters. He said he feels that media coverage of the commission is frequently one-sided and lamented that he could not match the incumbent Wegner’s financial war chest. Still, Plunkett said he planned to keep visiting residents and continue to ask the commission questions about fiscal responsibility.
“I’m the first one to question them, and I’m being ridiculed by them,” Plunkett said. “All he (Wegner) wants to do is point the finger at me and take it in another direction.”
The three member “historical preservation committee,” appointed by the Platte City Board of Aldermen at its May 27 meeting, is comprised of Alderman George McClintock, director of the Platte City Area Development Association and local retailer Mary Ann Brooks, and Shirley Kimsey. The independent committee had the support of the aldermen to present a petition on behalf of the city to put the downtown district on the National Historic Registry.
According to the resolution, the aldermen expressed support for a district that begins at the Platte City Cemetery at the north, the Platte River on the west, to Marshall Road on the west and continuing south to Academy Street.
In addition to the metal “slip covers” adorning roughly four buildings on Main Street across from the Platte County Courthouse, another apparent deal breaker for the city was the blend of new and old houses sprinkled throughout the city. With a lack of architecturally significant concentration throughout many of the city’s neighborhoods, naming one district has seemed to become impractical.
“The houses we will (place on the register) individually,” Kimsey said. “We have so many new houses that they can’t be in the district.”
Tiffany Patterson, National Historic Register coordinator for the MDNR, said that although the state didn’t think Platte City was a good candidate at the moment, the city was on the right track to pursuing some other sort of historic designation.
“I think there’s a lot in Platte City that is eligible for the historic register,” Patterson said. “I just don’t know if there is a strong historic commercial district right now.”
Patterson said that the MDNR gave the Platte City committee feedback on what the city needed to do before the state would support the city’s district naming efforts. “That’s the problem with coming to talk to us,” Patterson joked. “We assign work to do.”
Patterson said she asked the committee to prepare multiple property documentation and submissions. She said she encouraged cities like Platte City who don’t have resources together in one area to pursue getting on the register one-by-one.
“The problem in Platte City is there will be a really fabulous house from 1870 and on either side of it there would be a modern one,” Patterson explained. “So you can’t create a district.”
Patterson said the documentation the committee said it would prepare would be a big step toward getting on the register.
“It’s a big piece of the final goal and it’s a national register document,” Patterson said of the multiple property documentation. “It goes to the National Registry offices and is approved and filed. And what it also does is cut down the work for future property owners. It facilitates the whole process by outlining what is eligible in the community.”
Patterson said that the city always had the option of pursuing a municipally-designated historic district, an idea that Kimsey and Brooks both said they would consider discussing with city officials. In the meantime, Kimsey hinted that her next move would be to renew what she described as a long-term battle against the metal facades covering the downtown building’s architecture.
“They tried to put that (metal) on my building,” Kimsey said, recalling a downtown revitalization effort of the late 1960s. “I said, ‘no, you’re not! That damn stuff is not coming on my building.’”
Kimsey lamented the lost architecture that is hidden underneath the pastel-colored slipcovers. She claimed that in order to fit the metal onto the building, callous contractors chipped off the stone carvings that adorned the former building used by the Knights of Pythias, a men’s fraternity. She claimed that the former Platte City opera house’s façade lays hidden beneath a slipcover as well.
“Here was all this architecture being covered up here, while cities like Harrisonville and Meadville were restoring theirs.”
Patterson said that preparing the paperwork now may help prevent work like that from ever happening again.
“Now (the city) is setting up a plan where they can say, ‘we’re planning on doing these projects and we should avoid these areas because they’re historic,’” Patterson pointed out. She added that even though many cities find that a locally designated historic district isn’t the right fit for a community, she said that it might be a good one for Platte City.
“Hopefully, with a small investment there’s going to be some sharp buildings there,” Patterson said. “There’s enough to go forward with.”