"We don't want the money spent to sue us," said Monett businessman Randy Witt.
Barry County Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren responded by saying the meeting was called to discuss the 3/16th-cent sales tax going before voters on Nov. 8, not the TIF lawsuit. Warren and his colleagues nonetheless responded to the Monett audience, whose attitude toward the election issue seemed to be shaped by the TIF litigation.
Warren said it was Monett that initiated the lawsuit against Barry County, not vice versa. The suit came after the county halted reimbursements to the city of higher tax revenues generated in Monett's TIF districts. Originally, the county supported the TIF, Warren said, but only the original TIF, not the second TIF and later projects.
"I'll give you Cherry Warren's opinion," Warren said. "On a nine-person board, where the mayor appointed five people, the county had no authority. None. We had taxation without representation."
Warren further stated the county was offered "nothing" in terms of a compromise. Monett Mayor Jim Orr responded there were negotiations between Monett's attorney and the county's attorney.
"A proposal was made to us, and Barry County got zero," Warren responded.
It was suggested that county money was spent in Prosecutor Johnnie Cox's office to pursue litigation against Monett claiming Monett's TIFs were illegitimate and should be legally dissolved. Cox refuted that, saying he had stayed out of the dispute entirely.
"The bottom line is we're one county," Cox said. "I prosecute cases no matter where they come from. We're trying to do a better job for Barry County."
Warren implied political pressures pushed the county's decision to engage in action against Monett's TIF.
"If Lawrence County had won [in a court decision against Monett's TIF], the people would say, 'You did a good job looking after Barry County's money.' If the court decision had gone the other way, where do you think the county commission would be today? Every one of us would be toast."
Warren further questioned the legitimacy of Circuit Court Judge Neal Quitno's ruling in Monett's favor. He said the county was appealing the decision because Quitno "didn't answer all of our questions."
Specifically, if the five-year statute of limitations on protesting decisions by a TIF proves paramount, Warren said the county should be able to still challenge the 2007 decision to take on an additional $9 million in debt to widen Highway 60.
Jack Schulz told Warren the issue under debate at the meeting was whether Barry County deserved more money for its operations.
"Monett had the foresight to develop its community and the county benefitted from it," Schulz said. "If you do win [the appeal], what are you going to do with the extra money?"
Warren did not answer the question directly. He responded that office holders had chosen to go to the public to reveal there was a problem. The alternative was making cuts without warning in January when money is not available, leaving the public to wonder what happened.
As for the TIF litigation, Warren saw the legal fees as indefensible. He said the county had spent $90,000 out of each of its two half-cent sales taxes for its attorneys and was spending another $20,000 on the appeal.
Audience members asserted that the sales tax proposal and trust in the county commission was on the line.
"When the county commission stopped paying [on the TIF debt], your credibility was shattered," said Monett City Commissioner Mike Brownsberger.
Warren said the county had not put the TIF disagreement ahead of its relationship with Monett. He reminded the audience that the county allocated most of its portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act federal stimulus bonds to the city.
Nonetheless, Monett businessman Randy Witt told Warren the TIF litigation would color how Monett residents view the sales tax proposal.
"We think there are two sides to the TIF," Warren said.