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  • Charlene Sims, Journal staff

Commissioners, city officials debate budget cuts, speed traps

Updated: May 24, 2022

MOUND CITY – When city officials attended the Linn County Commission meeting on Monday, May 9, good information and feedback were given, but accusations by and against the commissioners were also part of the meeting.

At its May 2 meeting, the commission, without discussing the matter, voted to approve a motion by Commission Rick James to cut off funding in 2023 to the economic development infrastructure grant it has given Linn County cities for the past several years. The grants were given to all cities in the county, and the total for the 2022 fiscal year was about $285,000

This week, city officials from Mound City, La Cygne, Linn Valley and Pleasanton gave information and feedback to the commissioners about the infrastructure grant, on cities paying for using the county dispatcher, and consolidation of city and county fire departments in Pleasanton and La Cygne.

La Cygne Mayor Debra Wilson asked that the commissioners rescind their motions from last week’s meeting related to the infrastructure grant and the school resource officer (SRO) programs. She requested that the cities, lake developments and the county have quarterly meetings to discuss better ways to balance out the expenditures.

Wilson explained that the city of La Cygne had been working on saving money to build a new fire station since 1996. She said that the people of La Cygne had heard the proposal that Commissioner Rick James made about combining the city and county fire departments at La Cygne. She said she wanted everyone to hear the city’s point of view.

Wilson gave some history about the contract the city began in 2007 with the county for the rental of space at the county fire barn for the city’s fire trucks. In this agreement, the city pays for the utilities, amounting to about $2,900 a year, and the city also paid for some construction and utility hookups at the new fire barn.

But the contract allows the county to cancel their agreement with the city with an 180-day notice. Two years ago, the commissioners discussed having the city move out its fire equipment and in fact this had happened several times during the time period covered by the contract.

Wilson then addressed the infrastructure grant funds that the commissioners voted to stop giving to the cities. She said the actions portrayed by the county commissioners on May 2 were devastating. The actions taken did not save the citizens of Linn County on taxes. It simply shifted the cost expense from a larger tax based entity to a smaller tax based entity. Both the SRO program and the economic development grant programs were essential in improving our communities.

She said that well-maintained and operating infrastructures is the key component but it comes with a large price tag. The assistance from the economic development grant program provided the means for cities to quickly obtain the preliminary concept and cost estimates to allow the city to pursue grant opportunities through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rural development program, the community development block grant (CDBG), and other trustee foundation grants for infrastructure, improvement projects. By eliminating the grant program, the commissioners have simply created a delay for opportunity for cities to move further ahead in reaching their infrastructure goals. This hurts not only the cities but the county as well.

Linn Valley: Cuts not a win for the county

Linn Valley Mayor Cindy Smith said that the goal of a zero neutral budget by the county at the expense of the cities is not a win for Linn County taxpayers. The actions taken last week and the proposals of further actions to reduce taxes for an individual simply shifts the responsibility to another entity.

Smith addressed other issues also. She said that she did not support hiring three full-time employees for the fire departments when there appears to be other staffing needs.

She explained to the commissioners that at this time the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating for Linn Valley was 9, partly because of water availability. However, the city received a $17.9 million water project and is working on water supply and putting in 250 hydrants. If adding a new employee to the fire department would change the ISO, the city would definitely act on that.

Smith said that Linn Valley is a growing and thriving city with a population of about 1,000 that can increase 3,000 to 4,000 over holiday weekends. The city processed 500 building permits in 2020 and 600 in 2021. These permits range from culverts, sheds, docks, fences and to complete home builds.

In 2021, Linn Valley’s valuation increased about $2 million to $12.8 million of the county’s $28.9 million valuation. The county financially benefits from these increased values.

She said that Linn Valley disagrees that the city should be charged additional fees for the county’s dispatching services. Last week it was stated at the commission meeting that Linn Valley ties up the county dispatch services with the implication that Linn Valley is impeding other business of the office. The number of 25 to 40 dispatch calls on a Friday was provided as an example.

She said she disagreed with that number, but if there was a need for 25 or 40 calls, she thinks the commission should assist the sheriff’s office to resolve the problem instead of penalizing a city.

“It is inappropriate for county representatives to criticize Linn Valley or any other community for using a service that is funded by taxpayers. I am looking for consistency for how the county commissioners respond to growth in Linn Valley,” said Smith.

James said that his idea last week was a proposal to take over the responsibility of Pleasanton and La Cygne fire departments. One reason was because of the article about the fire station going to be built at La Cygne.

My point was can we make it better for all,” said James. “

Pleasanton city council member and city firefighter Jake Mattingley said that the redundancy is what they look for at the city fire department. They want to make sure that there is someone who stays in the city when other firefighters go out on a county call.

Mattingley said that he and others just watched the commission try to cancel the SRO program after six years. What happens if the commission decides to do that to the fire department after the city has gotten rid of our equipment?

James said he knew that conversation would come up. He suggest that cities enter into an agreement where only the cities could cancel.

Pleasanton City Administrator Teresa Whitaker told the commissioners that she had pulled several articles from the Linn County News from the last several years where sheriffs had asked for more dispatchers and they were denied.

The reasons stated in those articles was that there was no one to cover dispatch because the dispatcher was gone for medical reasons or that with one dispatcher couldn’t answer a second call at the same time. She asked why the county could not have at least two dispatchers 24 hours a day.

James asked if Pleasanton was annexing a larger portion of U.S. Highway 69 to make money by issuing citations.

Whitaker said that was not even close to the reason. She explained that they were annexing U.S. 69 so that their officers could get on the highway by the exit to encourage people involved with drugs to go on to the next county.

She said they were at the point with drugs that they were going to have to double their department just to keep the drugs out of Pleasanton. She said that the numbers of drug arrests was three in 2015 and has gone up to 80 in 2021.

Whitaker said that people with drugs love the Casey’s, they love the truck stop, they love the 24 hours, they love everything about it. It’s a place where they think they can do things.

Right now, they were not adding any more officers so the calls should not change. It’s not changing anything other than where they are sitting, said Whitaker.

James asked if Pleasanton was just adding the highway as a deterrent to keep people from stopping at Pleasanton would the officer not stop someone going down the highway at 85 miles per hour. Whitaker turned that question over to the Pleasanton Police Chief Tristan Snyder.

Snyder first pointed out that it is illegal for law enforcement officers to ticket people for profit. He also said his police force will stop cars if they are going 85 or 95 miles per hour.

So that’s a ticket, asked James.

Snyder said not necessarily a ticket, but a stop because they have to enforce the law.

I think that what is happening is not what you are stating, said James.

Snyder said what Pleasanton wanted to do was show a law enforcement presence by the city’s exits so that people would keep on going.

James went back to Wilson and said that was up to the cities whether they wanted to try to save money on combining the fire stations.

James got up and went to the white board to draw a picture of where Linn Valley is and where the exits are that go to Linn Valley on 69 Highway. He said it was almost six miles either way to get to the highway from the Linn Valley entrance.

James asked Smith how the Linn Valley officers being out there is protecting Linn Valley? What is the purpose of this? asked James.

“It’s a speed trap, it’s a speed trap,” said James.

Smith asked that a commissioner not use the term “speed trap” in regards to lawful law enforcement.

This is an insult, said Lewis Donalson, a Linn Valley council member.

James said, “Take it as a direct insult from me.”

Linn Valley doesn’t make any money on this, said Donalson.

If you don’t make any money, why are you out there, asked James.

James said he thought there needed to be some legislation to eliminate that kind of enforcement.

Mound City mayor questions decision

Mound City Mayor Wade Doering said he was at the meeting mainly about the infrastructure grant. He said that Mound City does its budgets every year counting on that infrastructure money. Without meeting with the cities, the mayors or the city councils and just taking that money away, it just seems like that is something we should have spoken about.

He said that he understands that times change but he said the city was told that this money was never going away and the money was always going to be there.

County Counselor Gary Thompson and County Clerk David Lamb both said that nothing was ever said that it would always continue.

James said it was understood that if the commission could do it next year they would. When you run something for like six years it almost feels like it is permanent.

James said they had the money but he thinks it needs to be delayed for a year.

“Why are we delaying it for this year?,” asked Doering.

James answered the commission wants taxes to go down. Everybody wants the services, but nobody wants the taxes. The county is going to meet revenue neutral this year, he said, adding that he would guarantee it.

James told Doering it’s up to cities to decide whether to meet revenue neutral and if it is important to city governments and their citizens to keep taxes as low as possible.

Doering said that the commissioners do everything in executive session and then they come out and say let’s get rid of this and this and this. That’s not communication. If you want to do something, have the mayors come in and open up a conversation about it.

Lack of communication an issue

Commissioner Danny McCullough said that no one comes in to discuss these issues during budget time. The commission gives out tax money to the cities. He said that a lot of people, some people he doesn’t even know, come in and get free money and no one even knows what it goes to.

Nobody comes in quarterly and tells us how things are going in your town, McCullough continued. I want to utilize the camera, like hard core. You guys can take it how you want. I want the public to know what the taxes are being spent on. I have no idea what you guys have spent your infrastructure money on, said McCullough.

It is in the newspaper, said Doering.

McCullough said that he did not read the newspaper very often, and that he does not have time. He said the mayors should come in quarterly, talk to the commissioners, let us know how your cities are going.

The county has had a mayor meeting, McCullough said. We have had one and I’m going to talk to Teresa Whitaker, Pleasanton city administrator. He said he was going to start having town hall meetings and getting people and figure out what people want.

That is all well and good, and I am all for it, said Doering. He added that the one meeting of city and county officials he attended was good but nothing happened after that.

McCullough said that communication just stops. He said he believes that there is so much division between all departments in the county. He wished that everyone could all just work together and get it all figured out and come to the best solution. I don’t know what the best solution is.

County counselor Thompson pointed that when the cities make their application for the grant, they do tell the county what they are using it for.

I think everybody should come in and stand at that podium and they should let everybody know what that money is going towards, said McCullough.

Mound City Council member Lawrence Forbach told McCullough that their meetings are open to the public. If you don’t have access to it, it is only your fault, he added.

We do pretty much everything in open session, Doering said. Things we do for executive session are personnel, and then we come out and tell everybody what we decided.

If I have to do a vote to give somebody money, I want you guys to come in and talk to us not just once a year, said McCullough. The budgets since I have been here are this is what we need this year, okay its done. I want to hear. The community needs to know what’s going on.

Commission questioned about closed-door session

Doering told commissioner they were saying we all should have communication, but then you do everything in executive session and come out and say, “I am going to do away with this, and this, and this.” That’s not communication. If you want to do something, then have the mayors come in and have a conversation about it.

McCullough said he has said multiple times during budget time how he hates giving money away without knowing what it is going to. The commission has entities come to commissioners and say, “We need 80 grand, and we never see them again,” he said.

In my opinion, everything should be out in the open, said Doering. Like I said, our stuff is out in the open. Come to Mound City to the council meeting you will hear everything we talk about.

A lot of times that camera (the commission camera) is black and it’s quiet in here, Doering said. And you say we are going to be out in the open and talk about stuff, do that.

In a separate telephone interview with Commission Chair Jim Johnson, he said the commissioners had never discussed the infrastructure grant prior to last week’s meeting. However, he added, it had been on his mind.

Johnson said that half of the people in Linn County live in the cities and half in the country. Why give people in the cities money and not the people in the county?

In another interview, Blue Mound Mayor Russell Beth, he said that the $16,000 of infrastructure money was going to be quite a cut to the city’s budget. It is used for streets and electrical repairs.

Beth also said that he was appalled when he heard that the commission was defunding the SRO budget.

At the meeting, James said we will get together with the cities’ mayors to talk about this.

Pleasanton councilman Mattingley asked again if the commission could have one meeting a month in the evening. James said that could be discussed.

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