By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
Besides, Wright argues, the audit is composed mostly of trumped-up allegations against a small city that was behind on its paperwork. "They went through all of that, and all they could find was procedural things," Wright says. "They didn't find anything illegal. They found things that I guarantee go on in cities all around us."
Wright is only partially right. Yes, a majority of the violations could be considered procedural, such as failure to have a job description for every City Hall employee, another recommendation Wright has no intention of implementing. But the two audits also revealed a long-standing pattern of poor planning and mismanagement, a troubling precedent for a cash-strapped city with a shrinking property-tax base of only $15 million. Paradoxically, while Pine Lawn officials continue to spend, they continue to argue that Pine Lawn can't afford additional staff to adequately manage the city.
McCaskill says it wasn't procedural but just plain irresponsible when the city paid $13,358 to Norman Stanley Fott and Associates in 1997 for a new community center that never got off the ground. The payment resulted from a project that started in 1994, when the city, without taking bids, entered into a contract with an architect to convert a building donated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis. According to the contract, the architect would be paid only if the voters approved a bond issue. Getting voters to agree wasn't the problem; funding the project was. Then-city attorney Kenneth Heinz advised Wright and the Board of Aldermen that the city didn't have enough revenue to float the bonds needed for the $3 million project. Nevertheless, the aldermen pushed ahead and put the bond issue on the ballot. Voters readily approved the measure. Just as Heinz had predicted, the city couldn't get financing. The architect, who had an iron-clad contract that guaranteed payment if the voters passed the measure, sued. The city fought the lawsuit but ended up paying not only $13,358 to the architect but $9,400 to lawyers.
McCaskill says it was "just plain dumb" for the city to blow nearly $23,000 because it started a project without knowing how to pay for it.
Wright agrees, but he doesn't blame himself or other city officials. Instead, he faults the citizens who voted for the community center. "If we spent according to these citizens out here, we would be bankrupt," Wright says. "They voted for a community center against the will of the city attorney at the time. We didn't have the money to even float the bonds to build a community center. We knew we only qualified for $1 million."
So why put it on the ballot? James Reynolds, a former alderman who adamantly opposed the project, says poor planning wasn't to blame but, rather, the city's desire to pull a fast one on residents. Reynolds charges that the mayor and other aldermen really wanted to use the bond-issue funds to renovate City Hall.
"They knew the citizens wouldn't vote for a new City Hall," Reynolds says. "So they put that it was for a community center. Then they tried to use the money from the bond issue for repairs to City Hall."
The mayor doesn't exactly deny the charge. "If you look at the language on the ballot, it was for a community center," Wright says. "It didn't say anything about City Hall, but as we speak we are going to renovate City Hall. But the monies approved for the community center aren't being used because we couldn't sell the bonds."
And what about the city's failure to get bids on large expenditures for such things as equipment, demolition contracts and gas purchases? Wright says there is no proof the city doesn't bid out projects, just no documentation. "Prove it," he says. "Everybody is making all these accusations, but they are not provable. They [the state auditor's office] perceived it that way because we just didn't have the paperwork. All our contracts are bid. We might not have the written agreement with that, but we call around, believe you me, to find out who's the cheapest, what we want and what we expect to get."
Despite getting dinged repeatedly by state overseers, the mayor says he's going to keep doing what he wants. "As long as there are no improprieties of money missing," Wright says, "no auditor can tell us how we, as a board, can run our city."
In truth, state officials don't want to be put in the position where they have to tell a city what to do.
"They want the auditor to have the authority to come in and then have the citizens deal with the problem through the ballot box," says Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League. "I think the Legislature doesn't want to be responsible for babysitting a municipality."
And for good reason: State government would have its hands full. St. Louis County has more than 90 municipalities, and Pine Lawn isn't the only one that's run afoul of state auditors. "Unfortunately, there are lots of cities that operate on the back of an envelope," Fischesser says. "They are not doing anything illegal, but they try to run the city like they would their own home or business.