State office opens review after complaint
he office of the Missouri Attorney General has once again opened an investigation into the City of Parkville based on a citizen complaint about officials failing to provide information under the Sunshine Law.
The attorney general, charged with enforcing the state law created to safeguard government transparency, responded to a letter of complaint by Gordon Cook, an accountant who has been researching the city’s process and financial numbers they use to set sewer rates.
The statewide office sent a letter to the city dated Feb. 11, informing officials that they are “reviewing this matter to ensure compliance with the Sunshine Law.”
Upon request from the newspaper, city officials furnished a copy of the attorney general’s letter to The Landmark. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office also emailed the newspaper a copy of the letter that was sent to the city but declined further comment.
This investigation by the Missouri Attorney General’s office is one in a line of recent state-level investigations into the City of Parkville. In October 2019, the statewide office launched an investigation following a complaint by Jason Maki that city officials failed to notify the public of a public meeting, which is another alleged violation of the Sunshine Act. Maki, a Parkville area resident who has been critical of the way the city is managed, earlier had asked the attorney general to investigate the city’s refusal to release some information he requested under the Sunshine Law.
However, the attorney general’s office ultimately decided to drop its investigation after Maki filed a civil suit against the city. The lawsuit is continuing in Platte County Circuit Court.
In the most recent matter, a letter to city officials announcing the investigation stated, “A copy of the information our office received is attached to the original email for your review.”
In addition, the letter requested “a written response to the allegations in this complaint in order to assist our office’s review of the matter.”
The letter states the information should be received as soon as possible, or by Thursday, Feb. 25. In addition to the request, the letter is to be considered “a request for public records.”
The law stipulates the information must be provided by the government entity’s “custodian of records,” who is Melissa McChesney, to whom the letter was addressed.
Cook, who spoke at last Tuesday’s Parkville Board of Aldermen meeting, said he had received some, but not all, of the information he requested.
“I was not getting responses in a timely manner,” he said at the meeting. “I’m still missing information.I’m hopeful that it will come through, but if it takes another Missouri Attorney General filing, I’ll go through that process.”
Mayor Nan Johnston asked city staff why there was a delay in getting Cook some of the requested information under the Sunshine Law.
“It’s a project for staff to assemble the data and put it in a format,” City Administrator Joe Parente said. “There’s no issue with doing that. If it’s not a report we have, we don’t provide it.”
In explaining his objection to the proposed sewer rate increase, Cook said at the meeting that he questioned officials’ decision under what he claims are false pretenses. He referred to the increased charge as “double taxation” and, clarified his position in a later telephone interview by stating that taxpayers already are being billed for “administrative costs” in the myriad of fees and taxes they pay to the city.
Despite his comments and objections, the board voted unanimously to give initial approval to increasing the rates by six percent. A second reading on the ordinance to set the rate increase is scheduled for the Tuesday, April 6 meeting, which also will include a public hearing.
Alderman Dave Rittman said at the meeting that sewer users will notice an average rate increase of about $3 per sewer bill.
At the meeting, Johnston said officials had hired a financial consulting firm that advises municipalities to ensure they were accurately managing sewer department funds including assigning budget expenditures to the proper fund. The city operates a sewer department which provides service to some city residents, while others receive sewer services through a separate utility, the Platte County Regional Sewer District.
“We felt like we did our homework in that regard,” Johnston said. “We don’t think it’s fair for all citizens to be funding the sewer fund when only part of our citizens are using it,” she said, explaining that citizens not using the city’s system would inadvertently pay for administrative sewer tasks when paying other city fees and bills. “Part of the problem is this is a very small system.”
She went on to explain that the larger sewer service has eight employees while the city must rely on help from several employees who also have other tasks.
Cook conceded that, based on his research, operating costs associated with the sewer have increased slightly, he said it’s not by much and added that “administrative costs are the escalating costs.”
He added, “Costs have escalated at a substantially increasing rate since 2016,” when officials last hired a consulting firm to evaluate such costs.
A different firm calculated sewer expenses during 2020 and, based on their calculations, determined a basis for increased sewer rates.
Nick Dragisich of Baker Tilly, a municipal advisor, told the board his firm calculated how much time employees spend on sewer-related tasks based on supervisor-compiled information.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he said during the meeting. “This is not my first rodeo.”
Alysen Abel, city public works director, said it’s important that the system be “self-sustaining” and to have money in reserves in case of unexpected repairs to the system.
“If you put off doing repairs to your system, it’s just going to cost you more in the long run,” she said. In addition, officials explained how consumers can control their sewer bills by limiting use during a three-month period each year, which is used to compile average annual usage. During December, January and February, taxpayers can limit use of toilet flushing, dishwasher, and laundry, they said.
But Cook said, at the meeting, that officials were merely trying to unfairly justify the rate increase. “I don’t believe you have an appropriate rate structure,.” he said. “These rate increases are never going to end.”