Main Street members, council face off

Staff reporter

In a word, the tone of Thursday evening's special meeting between the Peabody City Council and Peabody Main Street Association board members was "defensive." The meeting was held to discuss an agreement between the two boards.

But in the end, a committee was formed to come up with language for an agreement. The possibility also was discussed of the city giving a "donation" to the association instead of the expenses being line items in the city's budget, which would get the city off the hook of evaluating and supervising the Main Street director.

Mayor Ed Slocombe defended the city's position with the issuing of city funds, already earmarked, for the association because of other expenses, causing a shortfall in the city's budget for 2008.

Main Street board president Mary Avery and other board members defended the importance of the program as if there was a possibility that the city might deny continued support.

And when business owner Keith Wattson asked, "Are we in a situation where the Main Street Association is defending itself to the city?" it was clear the gloves needed to come off.

Slocombe maintained that the purpose of the work session was to "gather facts," but later in the meeting he expressed concerns about a city budget that was out of whack and disgruntled city employees who did not understand the need for different evaluations for different positions.

With $14,000 in the sewer repair fund for the remainder of the year, Slocombe said infrastructure repair and replacement could set back the city $300,000.

"The council will look at cutting services," the mayor said, if there aren't sufficient funds available for future repairs.

Slocombe said that city employees wished they had "cheerleaders" like the Main Street director with support from the association's board. He continued that it was important that the director's position be evaluated with the same basic document as the other city employees.

But the real question of the evening was, "For whom does the Main Street director work — the city or the association?"

The course of the evening

The work session began with Slocombe saying a request had been made by the Main Street association to have a memorandum of understanding and agreement between the city and the association.

Avery explained that the agreement was a suggestion by the state.

She continued that the Main Street program had been a partnership with the city since 1989. Support from the city included the funding of the director's position and other financial support, and in-kind donation of equipment and office space.

Councilman Leslie LaFoy suggested the finances that the city provided last year to the association be discussed. Slocombe curtly responded that LaFoy was making an assumption of expenses since there was no permanent director at this time. LaFoy continued with her presentation which included 2007 year-end dollar amounts that were noted on print-outs of the city's financial spread sheet.

The previous director's salary was $24,000 per year. LaFoy said benefits were $6,525 but she said that figure included more than just benefits of health insurance and KPERS but the "overhead" or requirements of the employer which included worker's compensation and Social Security.

Another line item that was paid by the city was for in-kind donations and expenses that totaled $4,731. The total expense by the city in 2007 was $35,257.

Avery then presented information regarding the possible loss to the community if the city discontinued support of the program which included nearly 2,000 hours of volunteer work, donations, fund-raisers, merchandise, events, and other factors that totaled $202,353. With expenses subtracted from that value, the net benefit was $167,096.

Slocombe asked how the figures were determined. Avery said the $12 per hour rate to determine volunteer reinvestment was suggested by Kansas Department of Commerce.

"I want to correct you," Slocombe said to Avery. "The city would not have paid the volunteers."

Avery explained that reimbursement for volunteer labor was not the intent but to show how volunteers have contributed to the betterment of the city.

Comments from business owners

"If you kill that (the Main Street program), you will kill downtown," Wattson said.

He continued that Peabody took a "huge hit" when the highway was relocated. There probably was an approximate 70 percent decrease in business.

"The program has helped businesses to recover," he said. He suggested the community take advantage of other programs but the Main Street program "is our thing."

Bob Marshall, a local real estate agent, said the community isn't able to create enough tax revenue to support sewer and street repairs, schools, etc.

"It's important to have others like out-of-town visitors to help finance that," he said.

Marshall continued that when families consider relocating to Peabody, they look at the schools and the general appearance of the town. When business owners drive down Main Street, they also form an opinion.

"Main Street tells them about pride and the amount of income generated," Marshall said. "Main Street (program) is important because the city is unable to take on the responsibility."

Peabody's Main Street program is revered around the state, and the program has received state and federal recognition, Marshall said.

"For the amount of money that the city spends on the program, it's cheap," he said, referring to the benefits the city receives for its investment.

Curtis McBride, owner of Peabody Lanes, said he had owned the local bowling alley for about six months and he said he brings a different perspective, being new in town.

"Within two hours of buying the business, Kristen (Hooper, former Main Street director) called and thanked me for purchasing the business and wanted to set up a meeting," he said.

McBride asked the council if the work session would have been held if Hooper had not resigned from the position.

Avery responded that the agreement is necessary regardless of the current situation of not having a permanent director because it will add stability to the program. She continued that the agreement was important because it will assure the association and the council that the program will continue with the same expectation, regardless of changes of board and council members.

McBride said his concern was about the lack of participation from other businesses with the board and sub-committees. He said he serves on the economic development committee and when they have meetings, there aren't any other business owners who attend.

"Why is that? Are they too busy?" McBride asked. Looking around the room of 20 people or more, he continued that "you can always get people to show up when something bad is about to happen."

Comments from the council, association

Councilman Larry Larsen said he was an original member of the Main Street association board in 1989.

"When it was started, there was a huge swell of community pride," he said. "It was fresh. And now 20 years later, we need to shore up our partnership and need a piece of paper that shows boundaries and commitments."

A working understanding will keep the two boards friends.

Morgan Marler asked what the first step needed to be in creating an agreement. LeFoy responded a statement that would include the importance of community growth.

She continued that one of the intangible benefits of the organization was Peabody-Burns High School students assisting with the women's fair, cleanup, and painting building exteriors.

"Students make commitments to the program," LaFoy said.

"That's how you get the kids to come back," Marler said.

LaFoy continued that Peabody wants to provide good memories for the children, preserve the downtown area, and want a sense of community for youth to return to.

Peabody resident Randy Dallke said no one has to say what the Main Street program has done.

"My question to the council is finances. The city is $150,000 in debt. That ball is getting bigger. If this ball gets too big, what do we do? We have no reserves," Dallke said.

"Is $30,000 going to make us or break us?" Marler asked.

With that Slocombe responded about the city's plight of needing to make improvements and the possibility of discontinuing some services in some parts of town.

Slocombe also said he wanted to comment on the Main Street program, particularly before he moved to Peabody. He and his family, which included his young granddaughter, were visiting Peabody during one of the Main Street events. His granddaughter performed a routine during the event.

"There was lots of fun and excitement," Slocombe said. "My family noticed how positive this was and participated in the events. There are a lot of pluses.

"However, there are some realities in this when deciding a budget," he continued, "as to which streets are we going to shut off because of sewer concerns."

Peabody resident Leroy Wetta said the council needed to prioritize.

"Something has to give," he said. "Do we continue the status quo and cut off growth potential or do we look at cutting expenses and continue to grow?"

Wetta continued that the city's largest expense other than infrastructure was personnel.

"The people of Peabody will not and cannot support businesses," Wattson said. "So we have to have a program in place to bring in people from the outside."

He encouraged more signs along U.S.-50 and other highways. Wattson also referred to a sign that used to be along U.S.-50 but was taken down and now is stored at a downtown business.

"That sign has no business being there (being stored instead of erected along the highway)," Wattson said. He said he noticed a 10 percent drop in business when the sign was removed.

Larsen suggested a couple of people from both boards be appointed to a committee to create a mission statement.

With that, the question was asked, "Who does the Main Street director belong to? What governs and evaluates the performance and what tools are used?"

Wattson said the council needed to commit to the association and then move forward.

The ratification of Shane Marler as interim director also soon needed to be done by the council, and pay for a portion of Marler's attendance at the national Main Street conference in a couple of weeks at Philadelphia, Pa.

Participation at the convention is a requirement of both the state and national Main Street program to remain in good standing with the program.

In the past, the city paid one-half and the association paid one-half.

Slocombe said he contacted the League of Kansas Municipalities, the Peabody city attorney, and others regarding the supervisor of the director.

Similar comments were made, Slocombe said, that indicated the entity that signed the pay check should be the supervisor.

"Advisory committee (association board members) can be advisers but city council is employer, will determine operations, and conduct job performance evaluations," he said.

LaFoy asked how that is structured with the board? Slocombe responded the position wasn't paid by the board.

He continued that the city could make a donation to the board instead of paying the director's salary as a line item.

Avery then read two letters of support from former council member Gene Schmill and former mayor Tom Schmidt. Schmill, who was on the council when the program began, recalled that the director was a city employee but was managed by the association's board and should report directly to the board.

Schmidt, who was a council member for three years and then mayor, concurred and said he supported the program because there was no city chamber of commerce or economic development program in place.

"Why is it we need to change this relationship?" LaFoy asked Slocombe.

He responded that the process was part of doing business.

"If it has been effective and worked (in the past) why must it be changed?" LaFoy insisted.

Slocombe then read a letter from Michael Biggs of Biggs Law Group.

The letter referred to "compensation and control" of the position by the city and the former directors who had signed employer-employee agreements with the city, therefore making the city the supervisor for that position. The letter from Biggs also indicated that the association should "make suggestions" but not necessarily be the boss of that position.

"Why is this an issue now and not in 2002?" LeFoy asked.

Larsen said the real question is, "Is everybody happy with the way it's been going?"

Slocombe said there had been concerns expressed about the criteria for evaluating the director's position. A different evaluation form was used for the director than for other city employees, Slocombe said.

Avery said she, Slocombe, and Benbrook had met in December 2007.

"There was no mention of a problem with the evaluation tool," Avery said. She continued that the same document form had been used since 2001, and any issues were not brought to the board's attention.

"I beg to differ," Slocombe said. "I met with you and told you there was a discrepancy."

"At no point did anyone from the city bring this to the Main Street board," Avery responded. "It should have been brought up in December at the board meeting but was not."

Was the council aware of the issue? Avery asked.

Councilman Steve Rose said he didn't remember. Larsen said the council was made aware of a difference of opinion approximately two months ago.

Larsen returned to his original question and then asked if the city could find a way to disperse funds so the organization can be a stand-alone program. The salary line item then would become a donation, therefore the Main Street program would be separate from the city.

"Would this eliminate the animosity?" he asked.

"How do we get past this bump in the road to keep the program going?" Slocombe asked.

Following additional comments about the evaluation form that should be used, and two hours later, Slocombe appointed Larsen and Rose to a committee to work out details regarding a mission statement for an agreement. Avery appointed Morgan Marler and herself to the committee.

Benbrook pointed out to the council that two council members on the committee would constitute a majority, so the committee would have to abide by the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Curtis asked if there would be any benefit to having someone on the committee who isn't on one of the boards.

City employee Stephanie Ax volunteered to take minutes of the committee meetings.

Another item that was to be discussed, performance evaluation process, was tabled.