Parkville mayor forced to break tie
proposal to raise sewer rates for residents who use the Parkville sewer system failed during a board of aldermen meeting last Tuesday.
The measure, which called for raising rates by six percent, followed a two-hour board discussion during the meeting last Tuesday amid comments by a resident who spoke against the rate increase.
Gordon Cook, a Parkville resident who had a career as a chief financial officer in private industry and recently was appointed to advise Platte County Commissioners as a member of the Platte County Sales Tax Committee, told the board the rate increase was unnecessary and questioned whether the increase could be diverted for another city expense, such as helping to pay the city’s mounting legal fees for a civil suit filed by a resident in a Sunshine Law dispute.
Mayor Nan Johnston said the rate increase would be used for sewer maintenance and other expenses.
“I see no reason to bring that up,” Mayor Nan Johnston told Cook during the hearing. She continued, “I resent you bringing that up.”
Alysen Abel, public works director for the city, told the board that each one percent increase generates an additional $15,000 to the sewer fund. The board earlier discussed a three percent increase but voted unanimously in February to increase it to six percent, which would generate an additional $45,000, according to Abel.
Cook further told the board he had requested information about sewer operations and had studied a report by a private financial analysis firm the city used in determining the best path forward. Cook said he was surprised that during a February meeting in which a Baker Tilly representative spoke about the firm-prepared written report, aldermen exhibited a “surprising lack of curiosity from the board” and seemed to take the firm’s suggestions without question.
Cook also questioned the efficiency of the city staff in billing and customer service issues. He said a study of other area sewer systems indicated some manage three times the number of customers handled by Parkville city staff, given the small number of clients that use the Parkville sewer system.
In addition, Cook said he noticed several errors in the calculations of the costs to operate the sewer system.
“You have expenses allocated to sewer costs that have absolutely nothing to do with the sewer,” he said.
One problem is employees who help manage the sewer system only estimated their time spent on sewer-related functions. Alderman Brian Whitley said he trusted the report.
“I don’t think the percentages are out of line,” he said, and added that “a lot of steps went into generating these numbers” but said more could be done. Still, Whitley said he wanted more information.
“We need to assess the cost of providing these services.to provide the quality our citizens have come to expect.”
During the open hearing, Cook mentioned that he could file a lawsuit alleging city officials are over-charging for sewer rates, but also said he doesn’t want to resort to solving the matter in the court system.
Alderman Dave Rittman said he was reluctant to support the rate increase given the threat of a lawsuit. Alderman Greg Plumb said the city’s increase is similar to that of other area sewer districts and had a different reaction to legal action.
“If Gordon wants to sue us, he can sue us,” he said.
The six percent tax increase vote was opposed by Aldermen Tina Welch, Brian Whitley, Doug Wylie and Dave Rittman while Aldermen Marc Sportsman, Robert Lock, Greg Plumb and Philip Wassmer voted in favor of the increase.
But Johnston, the mayor, said while she has faith in the firm’s calculations “we could always do better, and we won’t be able to satisfy everybody.” She broke the tie by voting no.
Johnston said while she would not have voted “no” to the increase under other circumstances, she felt a no vote was warranted given that half of the eight-member board had reservations about the increase. Johnston said despite sitting as mayor for more than seven years, the vote marked the first time she was called on to break a tie of the eight-member board.
She said, “We want to make sure we’re providing the best service at the best possible price,” and added that several alternatives that remove tasks from already overly-burdened city employees could work. They “have quite enough to do” in other aspects of the city’s operation, she said.
The no vote nixes the increase and means the matter will be taken up at future board meetings.
Rittman said the report should be sent for review to the city’s finance committee, which offers recommendations to the board of aldermen.
“We’ve got some validations that need to be looked at,” he said.
Abel, the public works director, prepared a document of alternatives to the current operating system from which elected officials eventually could choose, including transferring ownership of the sewer district to Platte County, which already operates a sewer system that supports some Parkville properties. Another option would be selling to a private entity and another offered transferring aspects such as billing and customer service out of the city hall operations.
Board members had approved the rate increase on a first reading during a February meeting.
The board decided to ask a representative of the firm to return to a future board of aldermen meeting to answer the allegations of miscalculations and errors by Cook. Johnston said, “They did the study-they should be able to defend themselves.”