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  • Last modified 84 days ago (Feb. 18, 2021)

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Making a splash
or drowning in lies?

The City of Marion’s attempt to soak the Marion school district for the full cost of the community’s pool appears to be more of a belly-flop by the city council than a deep dive into fiscal reason and responsibility.

There’s nothing at all deep — unless it’s a deep fake — about the city’s mean-spirited, ill-informed, and inexplicably sudden effort to avoid its obligations, much as it has done over the years when cutting support to such things as the city’s museum and now-defunct chamber of commerce.

The one group least likely to lend its support to civic activities in Marion appears to be its own city council.

Apparently, the city needs a lot more money to pay for such things as its 55 phone lines — 50 of them employee cell phones. Altogether, they cost taxpayers $2,070.19 in January alone. Multiply that out over a full year and it’s one-quarter of what the city might have spent on pool debt this year had it not decided to welch on its promise.

Throw in $1,310.41 that the city spent last month on computer support, much of it related to setting up email accounts on the employee cell phones and getting rid of viruses employees stupidly allowed their computers to become infected by, and you can see why the city wants to stop paying the school.

Pretty soon, it won’t have any money left to give employees raises at a time when non-governmental workers are happy to retain just a fraction of their earnings before COVID-19.

Who knows? The city might even have to lose part of its burgeoning fleet of garbage trucks, give up on changing the color of light bulbs on the Luta Creek bridge every few days, or stop sending out colorful and costly flyers with the utility bills it pays a third party to mail.

The issues may seem complex, but they’re actually fairly simple. The city contends it never voted on a 2006 resolution agreeing to pay the schools $100,000 a year to help retire pool debt.

In fact, in 2010, it signed off on a sworn document, attested to by auditors, that it had voted to approve the resolution. Either the city’s 2010 sworn statement was a lie or the city’s 2021 contention is. Both can’t be true.

If the city lied in 2010 in a document that sought to evaluate city debt prior to its own borrowing, why did the city continue to make $100,000 payments every year until someone got ticked off at the school district last fall?

Not only does the city challenge that it never approved payments and that they were for only 10 years, despite other documents that clearly state they would last until 2024. It also contends the debt was retired in 2015 when, in fact, it was just refinanced. Again, it contends, the city’s obligation ended then. But, if so, why did it continue to make payments for another five years.

Talk about lack of fiscal responsibility. If you continued to send your bank mortgage payments long after your mortgage had been paid off, it wouldn’t be your bank that’s cheating you. It’s would be your own fault.

So the question now becomes, where, oh where, has more than $1 million gone? If it wasn’t owed in the first place, why did the city pay it? Maybe we should attempt to garnish the wages of those who signed the checks so we taxpayers can get that money back.

The city’s ridiculous claims don’t end there. The city contends it negotiated with the schools an agreement about other cost-sharing that needed to be renewed — but wasn’t — in 2010. Truth is, that agreement — signed by the current mayor in his former role as city administrator — clearly states that it could be reviewed for possible amendment in 2010. It says nothing about expiring if no changes were deemed necessary.

What’s even more interesting is the shroud of secrecy that has surrounded city discussion of welching on its pool deal. Under the guise of attorney-client confidentiality, the city administrator presented a raft of expense data to council members during a secret session a few weeks ago. Afterward, the council voted to send “the business” in question — which turns out to have been the school district — a letter saying it no longer wants to pay for the pool.

To our knowledge, no vote was ever taken stating that the city no longer wanted to pay for the pool, only that one specific bill would not be paid. If there was some broader vote, it would have occurred — illegally — in secret session.

Documents from that secret meeting were snatched up from council members, one of whom had to go to the Kansas Sunshine Coalition, which agreed that, as a council member, the documents could not be withheld from her.

We asked for basically the same documents and promptly were warned that it would cost us $163.22 — probably in hope that we would give up our request. We didn’t. The fee included four hours of “research time,” billed at a rate that would mean the research could have been done only by the city administrator. We’re shocked it took him four hours to find what he already had given to council members, then snatched back from them.

Our biggest question, however, is why the city suddenly decided to target the pool. Is this coming from the administrator or the mayor, who ran on a platform of getting rid of the administrator? Or is it something else?

It can’t be many other people, as two of the four other council members have ties to the schools and have had to disqualify themselves from voting, and a third has opposed welching on responsibilities.

Clearly, something’s rotten in city hall. Even if the motives are purely about saving city money, the entire affair is a sucker-punch to the community.

The city surely realizes that the pool will go on whether it pays its fair share or doesn’t. All sorts of things — food banks, festivals, museums, chambers of commerce — may or may not have a legal claim to city support, but they certainly have a moral one.

Next time you wonder why Marion can’t seem to secure the type of economic development that other communities enjoy, look at the image our city government is conveying.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 18, 2021

 

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