Mayor applauds task force, evaluates suggestions

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Cape Girardeau's mayor, Jay Knudtson, was asked to comment on the Citizens Finance Task Force that recently made recommendations to the city council that included spending plans and fee and tax increases. The mayor's response includes opening comments and his answers to questions from the Southeast Missourian.

By Jay Knudtson

Motivation for creating the Citizens Finance Task Force: Immediately following the city's annual retreat in April, it became very clear to me that the more information that we were exposed to pertaining to the financial condition of the city, the more urgent and critical the needs and priorities became. The sense of urgency that I was experiencing was driven by the actual financial condition of the city, not by any plea or influence from staff members. Because the information was so compelling and revealing, the thought occurred to the council to bring more citizens into the process. We felt this would allow them to research, validate and confirm or not confirm some of the conclusions we had come to.

Task force established: As a result, the Citizens Finance Task Force was established with input from all council members. The committee is a very diverse group made up of 12 citizens who represent all areas of Cape Girardeau.

The process: Through Melvin Gateley and Nancy Jernigan's leadership, the committee conducted four meetings in which no fewer than nine of the 12 committee members attended. There were also three town hall meetings in which public input was sought. The group reviewed financial information and was exposed to detailed presentations outlining the city's current financial condition. In addition, a tour was conducted of police headquarters, Fire Station No. 1, Fire Station No. 3, the public works facility and the parks and recreation maintenance building.

The committee then summarized its initial findings with a presentation Aug. 13 to the city council.

The time line: Because the council would have had to take formal action by the Aug. 19 council meeting to initiate any ballot measure in November, the task force was given only 30 days to review the information and make recommendations. The November election was not chosen, removing some pressure from the process. We have asked the task force to continue to meet and report back to us.

Outlined below are my responses to the six questions that were presented to me by the Southeast Missourian.

What results did you expect from the Citizens Finance Task Force?

I really had mixed emotions about what kind of results to expect from the task force. It did, however, become very apparent to me at an early stage that this particular group viewed its role very seriously and wasn't bashful about asking the difficult questions of staff members and exploring all possibilities. I honestly had no preconceived notions of what type of outcomes the group would identify, but rather was convinced that implementing the group and exposing it to the process was the very best way to build momentum and support should any future tax increase be endorsed by the council.

What positive results came out of the group's meetings and final report?

Results and answers are not always found exclusively within the recommendations that are made. For me, the real positive to this exercise was that we took 12 citizens from Cape Girardeau and exposed them to as much financial information as possible and then allowed them to draw their own conclusions. They interacted with staff members, toured facilities and saw firsthand what the staff and council sees on a regular basis. In the final analysis, if you set the details of the recommendations aside, it was unanimous among the task force members that the city needed to do something in the way of generating additional revenue. For me, that becomes extremely beneficial information.

How do you see the city council using the information developed by the task force?

I'm not sure whether the information that was developed or the process itself is more useful. I am so proud of each and every one of those members for taking the time out of their busy schedules and making the commitment that they made. I've said all along that we are going to bring city government to the people, and this is a textbook example of that. The information itself will be looked at, along with the recommendations from the revenue team that was assembled by the city manager. All of this information is so useful, because there are now trends and consistencies that are starting to develop. That's why I have been somewhat disappointed with a few of the recent articles and headlines that have been reported in the Southeast Missourian. You have challenged the commitment of this task force, and that is completely unfounded. More importantly, you have chosen to take issue with some of the financial projections and analysis that has been conducted as a preliminary part of the process. I contend that debating and challenging details at this early stage is totally premature and focuses on the wrong things. The exercise that has taken place here is a good thing, and we need to focus on the positives, not the negatives. I'm concerned about what the citizens are feeling and where the trends and patterns are, not whether some income projections are completely accurate or not. There is time to validate and research the accuracy of the ultimate proposal upon being narrowed down. I don't say this to challenge you, because I appreciate your investigative reporting and am fully aware that it is your right to report on any issues that you choose. Perhaps I am at fault for not doing a little better job of managing your expectations pertaining to this exercise. The information that has been presented, as well as the process that was utilized, will both be used as a foundation and road map for the council as we continue into the next phase.

Given the city's financial situation, how long can the council wait to make a decision on tax or fee increases?

The city's financial situation is approaching a critical juncture. If we experience flat sales-tax revenue throughout this year, we will potentially be in another deficit situation. However, preliminary sales-tax revenue numbers appear to be on the increase. It's important to point out that the city currently has sufficient cash reserves to support a small deficit, but at some point we will be forced to take action to stop the bleeding. If we do not experience increased revenue by the end of the year, the council will be put in the position to initiate some type of tax or fee increase by next spring or be forced to reduce the level of services to our citizens in the 2003-04 budget year that begins July 1, 2003.

The task force proposed $15.3 million in capital improvements over 20 years. Would that plan require a bond issue and voter approval?

In terms of bonding options that exist, I will attempt to explain as best I know how, given the fact that I do not have the benefit of being an astute legal authority like my predecessor. Assuming the citizens should approve any tax or fee initiative that is before them, the city can issue public facilities authority bonds without voter approval. These bonds have a slightly higher interest rate than general obligation bonds, which require voter approval. It is also possible that the stormwater projects could be funded through revenue bonds, meaning the bonds would be paid off through stormwater utility fees. Again, because we are still in the early stages of the process, it has not been necessary to establish a specific financing plan.

What is your opinion of the four major capital-improvement projects recommended by the task force: new fire station, enlarging and renovating the police station, making stormwater improvements and building a family aquatic center?

Again, I feel it's critical that the community understands how deep the task force dug into the current condition of our facilities and the time it spent deliberating over the establishment of its priority list. The task force identified four major capital improvement projects that all have significant merit. The first three recommendations truly require very little justification. I believe that the police and fire stations became a priority in the eyes of the task force after visiting the current facilities and developing a better understanding of what the challenges are. I would concur with their assessment of the police and fire stations wholeheartedly. The stormwater situation again really requires very little explanation. We have taken major strides as a city to improve our capacity and ability to facilitate rising water. As the spring rains revealed this year, we still have work to do. This is a big deal to me, and I will not rest until I have done everything in my power to make sure that the citizens of Cape Girardeau do not have to live in fear that their homes and yards will flood when we receive heavy rains.

The final recommendation, the family aquatic center requires some explanation as well as some real forward thinking on behalf of all our citizens. This again demonstrates the depth with which the group reviewed the situation. One might notice that a new public works facility was omitted from this group's recommendation as a critical need. Is there any doubt that a new public works facility is needed? Absolutely not. But this group identified critical needs both for existing facilities and new facilities and concepts. The task force touched on something very special with its endorsement of the family aquatic center. Cape Girardeau is clearly the hub of the 10-county area, and it's time that we assume the role. With the Capaha Park pool literally on its last leg, we have an opportunity to bring a facility to Cape Girardeau that will have a tremendous impact on our city. As Park Board chairman, I toured several aquatic centers in the St. Louis area that were all city-run complexes. These facilities provided a family environment and an increased quality of life that I can only dream about here in Cape Girardeau. Best of all, in each and every case the facilities brought in revenue sufficient to cover all the expenses related to the facility. Some real vision is required here, and I'm not sure how the council will embrace this particular recommendation. But I applaud the forward thinking.

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