Sunday, May 10, 2009
by Greg Walters Last Tuesday, for the first time in 27 years, I watched the Raytown Board of Aldermen meeting as a private citizen from the comfort of my home. The view from there was enlightening, and, sad to say, disappointing. The BIG issue that night was a deal in the making that would have allowed CBS Outdoor to build one of those over-sized, lighted, billboards on 350 Highway. This action would have flown in the face of an earlier decision by the Board of Aldermen to break the lease agreement for two billboards on 350 Highway located in the Raytown Live development district. The cost of removing those billboards was not small. The city had already set aside $45,000 to pay compensation to the billboard owners. If accepted, the sign company would have returned the $45,000 plus interest (the money had been held in escrow) to the city for permission to build the new mega billboard. Enlightening . . . The enlightening part of the meeting was to see that three of our new Aldermen, Michael Lightfoot, Bill VanBuskirk, and Steve Mock broke the bobble head tradition at City Hall by asking some serious questions about the payout. To her credit, Christine White, was also vocal on the other side of the issue. Most of the others on the Board, for the lack of their participation, would have been just as well off watching the meeting from my living room. Disappointing . . . The disappointing part of the meeting was the clumsy maneuvering by city staff to avoid giving direct answers to direct questions. In that regard, City Attorney Nancy Thompson and City Finance Director Jeremy Wilmoth used a mixture of denial and parsing of words that would have made Bill Clinton proud. Keep in mind that this debate spanned two meetings at Raytown City Hall before the final votes were cast. Two weeks earlier Alderman Bill VanBuskirk asked in public session where the money was coming from to pay for billboards. City Attorney Nancy Thompson replied that she did not know the answer. This week, City Administrator Mahesh Sharma called on City Finance Director Jeremy Wilmoth to explain where the money came from. Wilmoth reported that the taxpayers were not really paying for the removal of the signs. Money from TIF bonds, he explained, would be used to pay the sign company for its signs. The answer is deceptive. It does not answer the question as to where the money comes from any more than Ms. Thompson’s admission of ignorance two weeks earlier. Who do they think pays for the bonds? The tooth fairy? Make no mistake about it – the people who shop in the new Walmart will pay the $45,000. What is more, both Wilmoth and Thompson are well aware of it. They have read the TIF agreements signed by Walmart and the city. Part of their job description as City Attorney and City Finance Director is to advise the City Council on these matters. So remember this, Walmart shoppers, every dollar you pay at the new Walmart store will have a tax on in just as little north of 9%. Part of those nine pennies per dollar is paying CBS Outdoor $45,000. HOW THEY VOTED: Should the City of Raytown accept a reimbursement of $45,000 from CBS Outdoor for the right to construct a billboard on 350 Highway? NO: Creamer, Par-Due, White, Hamilton, Mock, Ertz, Aziere. YES: Van Buskirk, Lightfoot, Melson Way to Go . . . Mr. Bill An interesting point of contention during the discussion was when City Attorney Nancy Thompson made an effort to silence debate on how much money was being spent by the city in the payout to the billboard companies. Alderman Bill Van Buskirk dismissed her reasoning and pursued the debate. He was right to do so. There are no “gag” orders in place at Raytown City Council meetings. It was heartening to see a freshman Alderman pick up on that so quickly. For the sake of our city, let’s hope the others follow his lead and become more proactive in future discussions. One Billboard Remains . . . What seems to be lost on most people observing the great billboard debate is that the net loss of billboards on 350 Highway will be two, not three. The $45,000 paid out by the Board of Aldermen does not remove a third billboard. The third billboard, the one the sign company was attempting to upgrade, will remain.