Clarksville, TN – On April 3rd, 2014, the Clarksville City Council met in its usual first Thursday of the month regular session. The agenda was light, but there were a couple of important financial items to consider.
Ordinance 59: You may recall the budget battle last year over an Excursion Boat project for the amount of $325,000. This money was to be borrowed and used to move the current dock along Riverside Drive to a location somewhere down river, approximately behind the O’ Charley’s restaurant.The city would do unspecified items to allow an excursion boat to be docked in the previous location of the boat dock.
While the city had been looking at this before and during the time of the last budget formulation, there was little concrete data upon which to be budgeting such an item.
However, the council voted to retain the project in the 2014 budget. Now, almost a year later the project is officially declared dead.
The city is now borrowing money for capital projects that were approved over nine months ago. Instead of reducing that amount by $325,000 the administration wants to continue borrowing the full amount and use it to purchase land for extending the riverwalk behind the Kraft Street area.
I am supportive of the riverwalk project, but again the city has not done its homework. When questioned about the purchase of the land parcels needed, the administration’s answer was they don’t know. What is the appraised value of the land? The administration does not know. When will the details of cost and willingness of the current landowners to sell be known? The administration does not know.
With such a plethora of missing details upon which to borrow almost a third of a million dollars and the new budget to be developed and installed in less than 90 days, it seemed wise to hold off on this project. Perhaps in 60-90 days we would have answers and address funding then.
Knowing that the Parks and Recreation Department has unfunded needs, several council members (including me) offered to support transfer of funding to that area. In last year’s budget new lighting systems for Swan Lake Park were needed. The initial budget called for $160,000 to do two of the fields. $80,000 was cut and the remainder was requested and approved.
The problem was, when the lights for one field were to be replaced, there had been a communications lapse between the lighting company and the city, and the bid was incorrectly formulated. The actual cost for one field was $120,000. So the project is short $40,000 and has not been done. The project is on hold because of lack of money.
Given the documented shortfall in money to buy lights for one field, given that $80,000 had previously been cut to replace needed lights on another field, and given the third field needs replacing also, there should have been plenty of rationale without the department head having to repeat it.
The mayor figured this debate was coming and tried to further support her rationale for not giving the money to the parks for needed items by having prepared the council a list of city parks that showed all the replacement and maintenance work that had taken place.
Thus, no additional money was needed according to her. I looked for the Swan Lake Park and its maintenance and replacement requirements since I had current knowledge about the lighting needs. It was not listed in the mayor’s handout. I asked the mayor if a page was missing. Then several other council members cited parks that were not listed. Of the 32 parks listed on the city website (including pools and community centers) the mayor’s list only accounted for 14.
The effort to amend the ordinance and move the money to the parks for such items was defeated in a 5-yes & 7-no vote. I voted yes. The vote was then taken to move the money to the land purchase for the river walk. It passed in a 10-yes & 2-no vote. I voted no based on the rationale I provided previously.
Resolution 33 (borrowing $11 million for the city)
This drew a good discussion from several of the council members. Let me recap the amount.
The city is looking to refinance $3 million due to better interest rates. I agree with that. The remaining $8 million is from the budget passed 9 months ago (which I did not support). From Ordinance 59 you know $325,000 is for land we have no idea about costs or timetables for. Almost a couple of hundred thousand is for studies, so you now get to pay interest on them while they collect dust on a shelf.
She then states the delay issue and lack of a timetable is related to the land for the station. It comes out that we have no land to put it on at this time. The city was offered a land donation for the new station and that may yet happen, although it is not as promising as it once was.
The mayor then tried to explain that the delay would not hurt the city in terms of borrowing the money. She stated that we did not have to pay interest until we actually pulled money for a project. I thought this was incorrect and it was. The person representing the company that works the bond arrangements for the city was there.
Basically, he stated that the borrowed money was a lump sum, and all interest and principle payments begin upon receipt by the city. Then the mayor states that this is a regular session and that she wished I had asked these questions in the executive session since it is easier to bring up people to ask questions. (In regular session we have to “officially” go out of session to have people come up and talk or answer questions and there had been a question on the borrowing. Going out of session is not a hard process. If everyone agrees, it happens).
It got more interesting that the mayor then tried to justify the lack of a plan and timetable for the fire station by saying it was not unusual for this to happen and used the Marina and Liberty Park as an example. I countered that her example was incorrect, as we knew the amount we borrowed, we had a start date and a finish date planned.
Now Mother Nature and a contractor filling bankruptcy altered the finish date, but otherwise we had a plan to start. Then it got even more interesting with the mayor saying that the city now had to build another fire station at Exit 8 as part of the tire plant agreement and this money could be transferred to that station.
The mayor led us to believe the fire station land deal was all but done when she wanted to move the money borrowed for that purpose to plan a new police station in North Clarksville – a police station that was nowhere on the radar when this budget was initially put together. The money was moved and the mayor has already approved the contract with an architect to start drawing plans.
The mayor then tries to lay blame on me for asking questions at this council session and holding up progress when I could have asked the questions at a the executive session the week before. We received the 256 pages of the council agenda 24-hours before the executive session. I do try and go through and scan all pages of an agenda and read closely those areas I may have concerns about.
However, it takes a bit of time to digest all the issues involved and that was why we moved the executive sessions from the Mondays before the Thursday regular session to a week before the regular session back in 2007. This extra time between executive and regular sessions was to fully consider the issues we must vote on and to make sure we had all the information we needed in order to vote.
So if we had additional questions by the time the regular session happens, we would be prepared to ask them. It is apparent that using this extra time for its intended purpose was an annoyance and inconvenience to Mayor McMillan. I asked the mayor if there was a limitation in the charter that did not allow us to ask questions about topics at the regular session. The mayor said no.
As discussions continued, Councilman Burkhart stated he thought the land offer was not a good deal from the start and felt the council was used. Councilman Burkhart was not in favor of the station going in the selected location from the start.
This was a surprising turn of events as the Fire Department chief has stated for years that a new fire station is needed in the Exit 1 area to meet the safety needs of those citizens and that it could also assist with needs in the Industrial Park. To not build a fire station now in the Exit 1 area would be backtracking on a safety promise this council made to those citizens. I will not backtrack on that promise.
After all the discussion the final vote was 8-yes & 4-no. I voted no. The city will borrow money and start paying interest on at least a couple of million dollars of projects that we have no information on as to final costs or a timeline to start or complete.