Verona Council faces unexpected franchise fee drop

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Aldermen opt to revitalize planning, zoning commission

Despite occasional head butting, Verona City Council members persisted through a meeting that ran 2 hours and 45 minutes, resolving a variety of issues while leaving others dangling.

Having held a budget workshop, aldermen proceeded to update their spending plan for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, two months into the new year. The delay stemmed from reaching an agreement with the Aurora Rural Fire District over merging the city department into the other tax supported organization, following voter approval on April 3.

A serious financial issue with potential ramifications surfaced in discussion as aldermen revealed franchise revenue with Empire District Electric had dropped in half. City Clerk Laura Hazelwood discovered the change and asked repeatedly for an explanation.

According to a letter dated April 27, Empire explained that in 2010, the company started a new billing system and inadvertently failed to remove BCP Ingredients, which was exempt from the franchise fee. The letter went on to explain that when Empire changed its billing system again in 2016, this time BCP was recognized as exempt. The change was not investigated until Hazelwood brought it to Empire's attention in November 2017. Over the course of six years, Empire had collected and distributed $157,000 to the city by mistake.

BCP wrote to the city on May 11 and asked how to resolve the situation, requesting to see written agreements that might affect the matter. Attorney Darlene Parrigon was directed to draft a letter to BCP, sharing a copy with Empire, stating the city's interest in locating documentation on the franchise agreement that dates back to 1984.

With less available funds than expected, aldermen moved cautiously into spending matters. The immediate issue fell to hiring part-time help to assist Police Chief Levi Neely. Mayor Joseph Heck said he disagreed with council members and advocated dipping into savings to pay $10 an hour for an officer to work 20 hours a week, for a total of $14,000 a year. Neely introduced Destiny Nixon, a deputy for the Lawrence County Sheriff's Department who also works at the jail for consideration as a hire.

Alderman LaDonna Buzard expressed concern that without help, Neely was likely to "burn out" under the work load, and praised his efforts to date. The matter came to a tie vote, with Michael Hayes and Buzard in favor, while Sheila Massengill and DeDe Hutson were opposed. Heck cast a tie breaking vote and declared Nixon hired.

Since hiring a specific officer was not on the agenda, bringing the part-time officer question back untabled the question from a previous meeting. Heck said Nixon could work under his authority to fill a police vacancy until the June meeting, at which time aldermen could vote on her specifically.

Heck proposed paying Neely $32,500 a year for 50 hours of work a week. Parrigon agreed to draft a contract to that effect for action at the next monthly meeting.

Aldermen wrestled with another major spending issue without reaching consensus. Heck presented bids from Hillhouse Services and J.R. All Services for clearing ditches to improve stormwater drainage. Rather than ask prices for specific work, Heck showed the contractors where the drainage problems exist and asked them to propose solutions. He presented aldermen with a list of sites, some with significantly different actions proposed.

Council members were somewhat baffled over how to compare the prices. In some places, Heck noted, drainage culverts had been smashed or were so filled with debris that water could not pass. Neely noted on one ditch, crews from the Missouri Department of Transportation worked for three days to remove a clog. Bert Bond, sewer operator, had offered to jet out some of the culverts where possible.

The matter resulted in no action. Heck offered to take aldermen on a tour, showing them the trouble spots, after which they could develop a plan.

The longest discussion focused on reorganizing the planning and zoning commission. Since the panel had not met since 2015, Heck felt the board was void. Records, however, showed three remaining members had four-year terms and were thus still legitimate members. Haynes floated a motion to dissolve the board, but since that question was not on the agenda, Parrigon said it was out of order.

Council members agreed to nominate Sue Downs, Pam Dorton, Lisa Army, Tammy Jenkins and Denise White to serve on the board, in addition to holdover members Greg Dawson, who had already declared his intention to resign, Matt Pruente and Linda Gates. Haynes had been named to serve as the city council's representative. Heck, as mayor, was an automatic member.

Parrigon noted that by ordinance, the planning and zoning commission had not less than seven members and not more than 15. With a quorum named, the panel could convene a meeting. Those not interested in serving could have resignations ready for the next meeting, she added.

In other business:

Aldermen voted unanimously to approve use of a debit or credit card reader to accept payments for municipal court fines. The service would cost the user 2 or 3 percent of the fee charged, but have no cost to the city.

To help avoid confusion over the city's service vehicle at work, aldermen approved putting an amber light on the public works truck for no more than $200.

After discussing other issues, Parrigon agreed to draft an ordinance in accordance with state statute specifying a time limit by which the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad can block the crossing at Main Street. Buzard said at times the train has remained stationary for three hours and Neely said he has had to "go around" to respond to a service call.

In response to Buzard asking about a farmer's market, Parrigon said the city ordinance said parties "selling any product" or being "in business" had to have a city business license. She agreed to draft an ordinance with less vague language to consider at the board's next meeting.

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