By NATHAN GREGORY
After two failed city facility bond referendums — the most recent one in 2011 — 2012 will be remembered as the year when city officials found a way to fund construction of a new city hall and renovations to turn the current facility into a revamped police station without the use of taxpayer dollars.
However, that way was also without a city-wide vote, which was met with opposition from outspoken taxpayers and aldermen against the board majority who approved the project in June. That taxpayer opposition forced the project through the legal system in which a Circuit Court judge ruled in the city’s favor in December before it could go forward, causing city staff to delay breaking ground on the new facility at the former site of Starkville Electric Department and continue operating in a 24,000-foot structure many officials said the city has long outgrown.
While discussion of a non-taxpayer-funded plan to construct the new municipal facility was ongoing during the aldermen’s open winter retreat and the board approved a proposal from West Brothers Construction in February as the contractor, a motion regarding approval of the $8 million plan didn’t make it onto a board agenda until June 4 in the form of a 118-page lease-purchase contract. The city is to use a combination of budgeted funds, retired debt and projected future tax revenue to make monthly payments for the improvements for the first three years before tax revenue dollars are phased out of the payments after 2015.
After Demery Grubbs, a financial consultant who had been working with the city on the project, presented short-term payment figures for the city as it begins construction and renovation, contention among city leadership set off what would become a six-month debate over whether the city’s decision to validate certificates of participation to fund the project without giving residents a chance to vote was fiscally responsible and honest to taxpayers. After lengthy discussion, a 4-3 vote pushed the measure through, with Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker, Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey and Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas voting in favor.
The board member most vocally opposed to the project was Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, who spoke for approximately 30 minutes detailing the reasons why the certificates of participation plan should not be supported.
“We want to at least talk about paying for this $8 million on some anticipated growth? Is that a prudent and conservative and fiscal way to conduct business? No. (Do) you think I’m going to build a home if I didn’t have one on future income? I’ll be in line, maybe, for unemployment (or) foreclosure … You don’t commit yourself out like that. You are setting future boards and future administration up for failure. If you want to have a municipal complex, it’s not about what we individually think. It’s about what the people think,” Perkins said.
He also likened the city’s current administration to a “dictatorship,” and called for new leadership, adding that just because the plan does not call for a tax increase in the short term does not mean it won’t in the event of a future shortfall.
“What (the majority in favor of the plan is) doing is they’re trying to set you up for failure so you have a tax increase. That’s what’s going to happen. What if the future growth falls short? Where’s the revenue going to come from? … You don’t commit … future growth in terms of repaying a long term indebtedness,” Perkins said. “This (project plan) … doesn’t look good. It doesn’t smell good. It doesn’t taste good. And when it doesn’t look good and doesn’t smell good and doesn’t taste good and doesn’t walk good, there’s nothing good about it. It has a poor appearance. We need to kill it.”
Shortly after board approval, Starkville resident William McGovern filed a bill of exceptions appeal to Oktibbeha County Circuit Court and a complaint to the Mississippi Ethics Commission stating members of the board held clandestine meetings in violation of the state’s Mississippi Open Meetings Act when drafting a plan for how the project could be passed without a referendum while withstanding legal challenge. When asked to comment in June, McGovern said his intent was not to keep the city from having better facilities to conduct business in or for the police department to have an updated base of operation, but to allow for an open, democratic process to take place.
“If we got to vote on the justice complex and wanted that, that’s fine. But doing it like they’re doing it, I just believe in a democracy that if you do these things I just think there’s a right and a wrong way to do them. If you’re not going to do it the right way, you have a problem with me,” McGovern said. “I think the people ought to get to vote on these things and that’s what I’ve been for from the very beginning. If it were being done correctly I wouldn’t have any problem with it. I’m not a troublemaker; I just want the process to be done openly. If it’s done openly, I don’t care.”
In response to the appeal, Dumas said he felt the discomfort was simply with the unconventional method of getting the project started, but objection to the plan was holding the city back.
“It’s unfortunate that there are people against change so much that they’ll do anything to stop it, even in the event that it’s a great project that will not compromise their financial position one bit,” Dumas said in June.
McGovern later dismissed the bill of exceptions appeal voluntarily on the grounds that it was not the proper vehicle for challenging the adopted public-private partnership plan, but he filed an objection to Circuit Court in September.
Representing 347 fellow objectors, McGovern, through attorney Charles Yoste, came before 14th Chancery District Judge Jim Davidson Jr. in November to contest the city’s project in an all-day event of testimony from city leadership, including Mayor Parker Wiseman, Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill and several aldermen as well as other officials involved in the project’s formation.
Yoste questioned the lack of detail in the board’s Feb. 7 minutes when it approved West Brothers’ proposal without specifying what the proposal was or how much money was involved.
Two weeks after the session in Circuit Court, a preliminary response from the Mississippi Ethics Commission found the city violated three sections of state code in failing to keep minutes for public meetings, provide proper notice of meetings and strictly comply with the Open Meetings Act.
The city did not challenge the report.
The report did not help McGovern’s case in the verdict handed down by Davidson in December.
He ruled in favor of the city in a 13-page opinion, which said McGovern made two allegations: The board violated Open Meetings Act and failed to specify the lessee corporation and the property to be leased, leaving those sections blank.
“The proof showed that meetings had taken place before the June 5, 2012 regular meeting at which the resolution was adopted. There was not a quorum of the board present, nor was there any affirmative action taken,” the opinion said. “If this was a violation of the Mississippi Open Meetings law, it is properly to be determined by ... the Mississippi State Ethics Commission. McGovern’s objection indicates that there is a pending complaint before the Ethics Commission. Even if the commission’s decision is in the affirmative for McGovern ... The Board can conduct violative meetings for years and then convene in a regular, properly called meeting and pass a resolution with impunity.”
“McGovern asserts that the places left blank are fatal to the approval of the procedure by this court and that the public’s right to know the details of the project have been diminished,” the opinion continues. “Both the ground lease and the lease contained an attachment describing the real property and the improvements to be constructed. The court does agree that the blanks create possible suspicion of impropriety to the layman, but disagrees that this is fatal.”
Perkins presented a one-page motion at the board’s Dec. 18 meeting to rescind all action pertaining to the certificates of participation and launch a June 4, 2013 bond referendum for a $3.5 million police station, citing requests from constituents and taxpayers he had spoken with. The same four aldermen who voted in favor of the issuance of the certificates were the ones who shot down Perkins’ motion.
Wiseman said he was pleased with Davidson’s ruling and eager to proceed with the project.
“It’s a big step forward for city in two respects. First of all, it’s meeting pressing needs in respect to infrastructure and physical needs.
Knowing that the city workforce is on track to have adequate workspace and the public will have facilities that meet building code standards and the Americans with Disabilities Act is a significant step forward for the city,” Wiseman said in December. “Also, it’s a step forward because it gives us an opportunity as a community to put the issue behind us. I certainly don’t believe this issue has stopped progress over the past decade, but at times it has kept us from making as much progress as we otherwise could have made. I think in the long run, the public is going to be very proud of these facilities ... We must continue to address new challenges and hope we don’t get bogged down for a decade in trying to address the challenges of tomorrow.”
News editor Carl Smith and education reporter Steven Nalley contributed to this report.