City Issues Response to Complaint Filed with State Auditor Regarding Parkside House
The City of West Plains has been notified that a complaint was filed anonymously with the Missouri State Auditor’s “Whistleblower Hotline” concerning the Parkside House in the Butler Children’s Park, opening up an investigation into the matter.
Per the request from the State Auditor’s Office, the City of West Plains has provided the following information to the State Auditor:
1) Documentation showing the passing of the City of West Plains’ budget for 2020;
2) Documentation showing the City of West Plains is not in violation of its own charter when using funds allocated for other expenditures to enhance the property at the Butler Children’s Park;
3) City council meeting minutes from 2017, 2018 and 2019;
4) The budget for the fiscal years ending March 31, 2019 and March 31, 2020; and
5) Quarterly expenditure statements for each quarter for the fiscal year ending in 2019 and the first quarter of the fiscal year ending in 2020.
Listed Complaints and the City of West Plains’ Response
According to the letter, an individual who “asked their identity remain protected” levied various concerns about the City of West Plains and its stance on the Parkside House. Last August, the West Plains City Council voted in favor of a proposal from City staff to build an all-inclusive playground on the site. As part of that proposal, the City would demolish the house to make way for a water splash pad and the all-inclusive playground equipment.
The complaints listed in the letter, and the City’s responses to those complaints, are as follows:
1) The City’s transfer of funds “allocated for other expenditures to the Butler Children’s Park as known as the Parkside House.”
City Finance Director Todd Harman points out the inaccuracy of this statement. “The only funds specifically allocated to Butler Children’s Park in the fiscal year 2019 budget was $89,000 identified for demolition of the Parkside House,” said Harman. “A budget line item was increased from zero dollars to $129,472 to cover $89,000 identified for the demolition of the Parkside House, and $40,472 identified for Georgia White park lighting on an unrelated project. This budget allocation was done as a budget amendment presented to, and approved, by the City Council at the November 6 council meeting.” Harman emphasized that “no other funds were allocated by budgetary measures to the Butler Children’s Park.”
2) The letter stated that “it is purported that an ordinance stating that funds that were allocated as Transportation Tax funds will be used for parking and a walking trail and Capital Tax Fund money will be used for construction of the playground north and east of the Parkside House located in Butler Children’s Park. The complainant states by using these funds other than allocated in the budget is a violation of City of West Plains’ own charter.”
At the City Council meeting on November 20, 2018, two proposals for the future of the park were presented. One was a proposal by the Friends of Parkside that involved renovating the House for a Science Discovery Center, and the second was a proposal by the City of West Plains staff to remove the House to build an all-inclusive playground and water splash pad on the site. Based on the two proposals, the City Council indicated a preference for the City proposal, but did not pass an ordinance adopting the proposal. In fact, the City’s proposal is largely predicated on securing Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grants to fund 45 percent of the project, which the City has not even applied for due to the pending legal status surrounding the House.
3) That the budget for April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020 was passed during a closed meeting in violation of the Sunshine Law.
On April 1, 2019, there was a special City Council budget work session meeting. The City gave proper public notice of the time, date and location, the agenda for the meeting, and the fact the meeting was open to the public. The draft budget was printed and available for public review at that meeting. Harman presented the proposed budget to City Council and members of the audience, and answered any questions from the people in attendance.
On April 9, 2019, there was another special City Council meeting. The meeting notice was again posted, given proper notice of the date, time and location, the meeting agenda, and the fact that the meeting was open to the public. The budget was approved at this meeting.
“No discussions related to the fiscal year 2020 budget approval occurred during closed session,” said Harman.
4) That the “board also accepted the City of West Plains proposal after requesting proposals for the enhanced utilization of Butler Children’s Park.”
The West Plains City Council publicly solicited proposals for the Butler Children’s Park from June 25 to August 1 last year. Only two proposals were submitted – one from the Friends of Parkside, and one from the City of West Plains staff.
The proposal presented by the Friends of Parkside called for a full renovation of the House, with estimates ranging from $600,000 to $1 million, to convert the structure into a Science Discovery Center. City council had concerns about the viability of that project, including the Friends’ previous inability to raise the funds necessary for the renovation, how the Center would financially support day-to-day operations and staffing, the overall lack of space needed for a Discovery Center, and insufficient parking in the area. That proposal, like the City’s proposal, would be solely reliant on a successful application for a LWCF grant. However, because the Parkside House has been declared “obsolete” by the LWCF, no funding is available to help in the removal or restoration in the case of obsolete structures. In fact, the obsolete designation gives the City the obligation to remove the structure, and technically the City is currently in violation of the LWCF because it has not removed the house.
However, because the City’s proposal of an all-inclusive playground meets all the LWCF criteria for outdoor recreation, and is geared entirely toward providing outdoor recreational opportunities for all ages and ability levels, the City is very confident in securing LWCF funding for its project. Council also continues to feel strongly that an all-inclusive playground, which allows children of all ability levels to play side-by-side, would have a far greater impact on the community.
To fulfill the State Auditor’s requests, the City of West Plains had to submit over 1,600 pages of documentation “at considerable time and expense” to West Plains’ taxpayers, said Harman. “The City of West Plains is proud of the fact that its constituents are given the budgetary prudence and professionalism they deserve,” Harman wrote to the Auditor’s Office. “I hope this is evidenced by our responses to your request for information, the council meeting minutes spanning three fiscal years, and the over 1,600 pages of data submitted as support.”
The City of West Plains was served with a restraining order in the Fall, 2018, that legally prevents the City from taking any action on the House. An initiative petition was also circulated by a group of five citizens – Richard J. “Dick” Davidson, Richard C. Davidson, Barbara Butler, Whitney Frazier, and Christy Frazier – that calls for the City to redirect funds in the rehabilitation and maintenance of the House. Those petitioners successfully gathered the signatures necessary to put the issue on the November ballot, which will cost the City an estimated $10,000 for the cost of an election.
City attorney Charles Cantrell and attorney Ryan Bertels, retained by the Missouri Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, both feel the initiative ordinance is in violation of Article III, Section 51 of the Missouri Constitution, which provides that an initiative ordinance “shall not be used for the appropriation of money other than of new revenues created and provided for thereby, for any other purpose by this constitution.” Cantrell states that “since the proposed ordinance does not create or provide for new funds to cover the expenses that would be incurred by the City under the terms of the proposed ordinance, the proposed ordinance violates the Missouri Constitution.”
Since the City has not appropriated funds for the restoration of the Parkside House, and the ordinance proposed by the initiative petition appropriates City funds for the restoration of the House without creating a new funding mechanism to support the project, a “government entity would not be able to plan and create a budget if existing funds could be allocated by initiative petition,” said Cantrell. He added that this is acknowledged in Article III, Section 51 of the Missouri Constitution.
The City has not wavered from its initial stance that the initiative petition is unconstitutional, with legal experts warning that a dangerous precedence could be set for all Missouri cities if initiative petitions can appropriate funds where no funding mechanisms are set. In essence, initiative petitions like the one proposed for the Parkside House could bypass the roles of public officials who were elected to vote on budgetary issues, serve the citizens and uphold the Missouri Constitution.
Issues of Finance, Purpose and Safety
West Plains City Council members and City staff have wrestled with the future of the House since the Parks Department moved out of the structure in 2014, choosing at that time to give the Friends of Parkside a chance to raise the funds necessary to renovate the House for a Discovery Center. After sitting vacant for four years, and with the group’s inability to get any financial traction on the project, it became apparent to City officials in 2018 that an alternative plan would be needed to make the park a viable asset for the youth of the community.
In fact, that was the original intent of the park when Bob and Pearl Butler donated the land to the City in 1977, according to sons Garry and Randel Butler. Both men have expressed their frustration with the City’s inability to take any action on the House, with the brothers wanting the House removed to make way for the all-inclusive playground that they say their parents, Bob and Pearl Butler, would have wanted.
Garry and Randel have both said the property was originally purchased by their parents to “flip”, or resell, in the 1970’s. When that proved too difficult they donated the land for the youth of the community, they said. “It has no sentimental attachment to either side of the Butler family, because we never lived there,” said Garry. “The house was inconsequential to my parents’ donation. They simply wanted the land to be used as a park for the youth in the area, and for future generations of kids to enjoy.”
The dilemmas faced by the City are three-fold: Expense, purpose, and safety. According to Harman, the estimated cost to renovate the Parkside House was estimated at $793,000 in 2015 based on a feasibility study prepared by an architectural and engineering firm in June, 2015. However, with inflation, current tariffs, and the cost to repair four years of additional deterioration, that cost likely swells to $1 million, according to Harman. He added that the estimated expense of maintenance and utilities is approximately $1,000 per month.
Harman feels those expenses are exorbitant when considering the City has no need or purpose for a house sitting in the middle of an active children’s park, particularly when conditions of the current LWCF grant state that the House can only be used for children’s services. In fact, the 37th Judicial Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association, which serves Howell County, was approached by one of the petitioners as a potential tenant. However, Board President Jeremy Nicholas said that although the topic was discussed, “it has never been an agenda item that we move or explore moving into the Parkside House. Cost and viability were also points of concern for the board. Nor have we been presented with the cost of renovating or occupying this structure.”
Harman said the overall price tag of nearly $1 million for just the renovation alone “is high for any city, but especially for smaller communities like West Plains. We simply don’t have a way to justify spending $1 million to renovate a house that we don’t need, and on top of that pay an additional $1,000 month to maintain.”
Safety is also of chief concern to the City. The House was condemned in the Summer, 2018, after part of the foundation was found to be crumbling, including an interior column in the basement. In response, the City had the house evaluated by a structural engineer, and put up temporary fencing to keep park visitors a safe distance from the structure. Park Board members also notified the City of their concern for the patrons of the park, and at one point recommended closing the entire park until the Parkside House issue was resolved. In response, the City put up sturdier fencing around the perimeter after another review from an engineer, with that report indicating that the house was not in imminent danger of collapsing.
City officials have also heard numerous concerns from parents that with a sizeable structure in the middle of the park, they sometimes lose sight of their children who run to the opposite side of the park to play.
City’s Plans for the Park
As planned, the playground proposed by the City will have “all-inclusive” equipment designed for children of all ability levels, new fall protection surfacing, a concrete water splash pad, new walking trails, a workout zone, 37 additional parking spots, and a new picnic/grilling area.
By definition, an all-inclusive playground moves beyond basic compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is designed to promote the healthy development of a child’s physical, social, cognitive, and sensory abilities. An estimated 4,000 students have some sort of disability in Howell County and the surrounding areas, and these children and their families would have the same outdoor play opportunities as those without challenges.
To make the playground a reality, the City of West Plains plans to pursue multiple LWCF grants for a total of $428,000. For its share of the grant match, the City would provide in-kind labor and equipment valued at $366,000, and use only $239,634 of actual City funds. “In essence, the City would have a million-dollar park at a cost of approximately $240,000,” said Harman.
West Plains Mayor Jack Pahlmann, who has resided in West Plains since 1973, certainly understands the emotions and sentimentality associated with the House. However, as an elected public official sworn to uphold the Constitution and to serve all citizens in the City of West Plains, Pahlmann also understands the difficulties faced by the City with being asked to renovate and maintain an old structure in the middle of an active children’s park.
Pahlmann said there is one primary question he asks himself when considering the future of the Butler Children’s Park: “What is best for the children?”
“And that’s what it boils down to,” said Pahlmann. “Bob and Pearl Butler donated that land to benefit children. What the City is proposing is to build a playground that will benefit children of all abilities. At the end of the day, it is not what is best for me. It is not what is best for members of City Council. Nor is it what is best for individuals who have a sentimental attachment to the building. It is what is best for all the children of West Plains.”