Broken-down blues

Sunday, June 2, 2002

orking conditions at Cape Girardeau have become laughable.

City department leaders and their employees can only chuckle about the equipment they use and the facilities where they work.

Parks and Recreation director Dan Muser laughed softly when he pulled up next to a rusty pickup at Shawnee Park. A man proud of his parks, his work and his employees' work, he said he was embarrassed to point out his department's hand-me-down vehicles and mowers. The passenger door of the pickup closed with difficulty. It's one of many vehicles showing their age.

On another day last week, police Cpl. Keith May demonstrated the trick of starting a police car. As he sat in the driver's seat, he bent over the steering wheel to see what he was doing while jiggling the key for about half a minute. Then the engine turned over and he looked out the window and grinned.

Police chief Steve Strong responded to the demonstration in a somewhat comical tone. In an emergency situation, he said he wouldn't have been able to start the car.

"I don't know the trick!" he said.

Funding frustration

City employees from all departments have been asking for more equipment and better facilities for quite some time. Due to an economic downturn, which began about three years ago, no funds have been available to replace much equipment.

And as a result of a lack of funds, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of frustration among the entire city workforce.

The city council will likely ask voters to approve a 3/4-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. A half-cent tax will be a parks and stormwater tax while a quarter-cent will go to the fire department. However, the biggest purpose of the tax is to free up general-fund money for operating expenses. In all, the tax would produce $6 million annually.

The intense desire for equipment and better facilities is nothing new, though there is at least some public perception that the city has only come out with the information recently.

In fact, city finance director John Richbourg warned two years ago that if the trend continued, the city would eventually reach this point -- a point where the city's useable surplus is nearly consumed. Regardless of whether the council accepts the current proposed budget, which estimates 3 percent revenue growth, another poor year for city sales tax revenue will likely force major cuts to be made in the following fiscal year if voters do not pass a tax increase in the fall.

The sales tax was recommended ahead of a property tax for a couple of reasons. First, the city has found that proposals for property tax increases have been rejected by voters in the past. Second, even though property taxes here are low compared to nearby cities, a property tax increase would not generate nearly $6 million a year like the 3/4-cent sales tax increase.

The city has expected sales tax growth to bounce back, but it has not done so in the last three years. Meanwhile, various statistics have shown that the demand for service has grown in the major departments, meaning roughly the same number of employees are doing more work than they did three years ago, and with older equipment.

Doug Leslie, public works director, pointed out that in 1956, the city maintained 150 miles of streets with 20 employees. Today, he said, the city maintains 215 miles with 19 employees.

Though no one has called Cape Girardeau's working situation desperate, body language and tone of voice suggest it is. Strong, Muser, Leslie, fire department chief Mike Lackman and airport manager Bruce Loy all, at times, spoke with higher voice inflections when showing and explaining their capital improvement needs. They often shrugged their shoulders and held their hands out as if saying "what more can we do?"

Holding onto services

The budget has affected city employees across the board. However, no services have been dropped over the three-year span. That has perhaps added fuel to skepticism that maybe the city hasn't tightened its belt enough.

Some question the city's credibility.

"If we're in such a financial bind, something is wrong somewhere," said Alan Roberts, a Cape Girardeau resident. "We've had an economy around here that's out of this world until the bubble burst in 2001. Where has this money gone? Why don't they have state auditor come in and audit the books?"

The city is audited every year by an independent CPA firm.

The only discrepancy auditors found last year was that a city board that looks into municipal investments wasn't meeting often enough.

If nothing else, the city has tightened its belt by not buying much equipment.

Twenty-five of the police department's cars have more than 100,000 miles. Of the 55 vehicles, 50 of them are in working condition. None of them has fewer than 60,000 miles, Strong said. Seventy-two thousand dollars are budgeted annually for the police department to buy vehicles. That's not sufficient to buy enough new cars, Strong said, so the department is replacing old vehicles with used ones. And the used cars simply don't last long, Strong said, particularly when they're driven by several different officers. The last new car bought by the city was a 1996 model with the broken starter switch. And it is in good condition compared to many of the other cars, Strong said.

The fire department is dealing with similar issues. For the most part, firefighters have good front-line equipment, but much of the reserve equipment is substandard, including a couple of trucks. Lackman worries that in the case of a major disaster, the fire department would not have the needed amount of working equipment available, including hoses, some masks, air tanks and various other apparatus. And some of the available equipment is 26 or 27 years old.

The funding crunch has also not allowed some firefighters to get training for handling special rescues and hazardous materials. The firefighters have not been trained uniformly, Lackman said. Some are qualified to be first-responders, but are not certified emergency medical technicians. Some are EMTs but not paramedics. Lackman would like firefighters to haveequal training, since they are almost always at the scene of a medical emergency before an ambulance.

Trickle-down theory

The worst of the general equipment pickup trucks seem to trickle down to the parks department. The parks and recreation department is responsible for the upkeep of 500 acres of 23 parks, not including the golf course. The parks department mows some medians and maintains some city buildings.

Many of the parks department's mowers spend as much time in the shop as they do on the grass, Muser said. The old equipment cuts down on their efficiency.

"Because of the age of some of this equipment, it won't do the job quickly enough," said Sam Work, a parks employee. "Some stuff is so old, you can't get parts for it. You have to get the part manufactured, and the equipment just gets tied up in there."

Also, the public works department must move its vehicles to a nearby bank parking lot every time there's a threat of heavy rain. The department has had vehicles damaged in the past because of flash flooding.

The non-enterprise public work divisions -- ones that do not operate with user fees -- such as the street, stormwater and fleet operations, are using equipment as old as 28 years.

Loy, the airport manager, wants a newer pickup truck that can be equipped with a snow plow. The newer one would replace a 1990 model with 110,000 miles.

The increasing age of the equipment is taking a toll on the fleet department, a division of public works.

The city has taken steps to avoid this problem in the future, setting up an equipment placement program at $1 million per year being taken from general revenue. But until that program is fully funded, the city must limp along and replace equipment from the general fund. At the current rate of depreciation, it will take 14 more years to reach full funding of the program.

Facility issues

Each of the major departments are not only dealing with equipment issues, but facility issues as well.

At the police headquarters, which was clearly not designed with growth in mind and was built smaller than the actual design, numerous closets have been turned into offices. As a result, most storage space has been used up. Even under Strong's desk, where his legs should go, a stack of papers is stashed away.

Computers are too few. Often one officer is bumped off a computer so another can do a more urgent job. Police interview victims in the station lobby when they cannot find privacy anywhere else.

Suspect interview rooms have telephones, typewriters and other technical equipment in them because there is nowhere else for the work to be done. It's a sacrifice the department has made even though a telephone or typewriter could easily be used as a weapon if things got out of hand.

The heating and air conditioning unit has never worked properly in the police headquarters, built in 1975. Warm and cold air don't circulate to both floors of the two-story building at the same time, police said.

"I was appalled by the working conditions at the police department," councilwoman Evelyn Boardman said.

Rubbing elbows

Workers at the public works department are rubbing elbows, too.

There's not enough space inside the garages for all the vehicles that need to be worked on, forcing employees to do their jobs outside. The current public works facility, on Kingshighway, seems out of place in a commercial area. The size and shape of the property is not conducive to running a public works department, Leslie said.

The parks department is having all sorts of difficulty keeping up its facilities. The department boasts two of the city's newest structures -- the Osage Community Centre and the Shawnee Sports Complex. But many of the other facilities are fading.

The A.C. Brase Arena Building needs work on its leaky roof. The Capaha Pool pump could go out at any time, shutting down the pool. A large pipe section of the pump was recently replaced, but parks workers say it's not enough.More park shelters are going to be torn down than will be put up. Many fences around city ball fields need replacement, as do some public restrooms in parks.

The city has done what it can, Muser said, to maintain facilities, but there is only so much that can be done.

The fire department still makes use of Fire Station No. 3 on Emerald Street, but it is old and in a poor location. And only one of the four stations can house a female firefighter because there is not enough privacy at the others.

At the airport, Loy calls part of the runway "the quilt patch" because of the numerous repairs to the concrete that have been done. A road in front of some hangars has turned from concrete to mush, and low spots collect water, which slowly is seeping under the concrete and will eventually ruin it.

The airport does receive a great deal of funding from other sources, such as state and federal governments. However, the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport -- increasing rapidly in popularity -- is in danger of losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants if it cannot come up with matching funds as low as 10 percent.

Plans for new buildings have been prepared and left in a holding pattern for quite some time.

Land has been purchased for a new public works facility in the vicinity of Dana Corp. Eventually, maybe, a new police station and fire station will be built.

But when asked about plans for a better police headquarters, Strong didn't get the least bit excited, although he managed a grin one more time.

"I can't see it being funded any time soon," he said.

bmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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