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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

Is PILOT best option for our community?

Sunday, February 2, 2003

I'll vote against the PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) on the ballot in Sikeston Tuesday. And what follows is my reasoning. Keep in mind that as a former member of the Board of Municipal Utilities I may have some slanted views. I've seen firsthand the challenges and opportunities that face our municipal utilities and I can't help but share the pride of their accomplishments. But at the same time I fully agree that our city is facing some serious financial concerns that must be addressed. I just don't believe the approach to this PILOT is the best option available.

I have no problem whatsoever with asking voters to impose a PILOT to fund some critically-needed city projects. I do have reservations with trying to pass this charge along to a handful of cities who buy much of their power from us. Those cities - most notably Columbia - are major partners in the success of our power plant. There remains a viable legal question on our ability to pass these PILOT charges along to these cities. I believe the issue must eventually be decided in a court of law. I believe that day will come. But the approach on the ballot Tuesday seems not the best option. But that is only one reservation I have with the PILOT.

In fact, Tuesday's ballot is the culmination of a long-running difference of opinion between our city council and the Board of Municipal Utilities. It's a gentlemanly difference of opinion that often centers on legal grounds. But it's also a philosophical difference of opinion, a clash of personalities and some strong turf-protection battles that have been brewing for years. These differences however have had some positive effect because they have forced discussion on issues that are critical to our future.

If it is legal to impose a payment in lieu of taxes on our wholesale customers (Columbia), then we should address that option and start that new revenue stream as soon as possible. But despite legal opinions that say the option is legal, there remain serious questions on the issue. Columbia officials, in fact, have said they will fight the PILOT in court if approved Tuesday. Were Sikeston in their position, we'd do the very same thing. So before we embarrass ourselves and potentially harm some long-standing relationships with other cities, it seems prudent to me to seek a court decision. Our actions can then follow the directions of that court case.

The city has been fairly coy with the exact need for $1.6 million annually that the PILOT would provide. Some would potentially be used to maintain services at their current level. Some would potentially fund the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority that was formed last year to address problem properties here. Some might be used for transportation, some for a new Public Safety building, some perhaps for a community center on the westend of Sikeston. We're all in agreement that there are ample projects and dreams that could go forward given additional money. But are the citizens willing to fund those projects? We'll know on Tuesday.

As Tuesday's vote nears, an unfortunate thing has occurred. The issue has become a personal one that seems to pit the council and the board against one another. That's unfortunate because both groups truly and sincerely have the best interests of this community at heart. I know and believe that to my core. But there are legitimate questions on the manner and type of approach we take to addressing these community needs. And that's why this issue is on the ballot Tuesday.

Mayor Phil Boyer deserves much credit for his efforts to educate the public on the merits of the PILOT. Boyer has worked tirelessly to outline the city's needs and the plan to address those needs. At the same time a citizens' group has worked equally hard to outline their concerns over the impact of the PILOT on utility rates here and the potential negative relationship that would develop with our partner communities. There is no shortage of passion on this issue. And I for one believe that's a very good thing.

I'll vote against the PILOT but I will support a renewed effort to clarify and decide whether our utility can pass along a PILOT to the partner cities. If so, we should impose one. If not, we should ask Sikeston voters to consider a small utility increase to fund these projects. The amount of that assistance should be discussed and the public should be told specifically what projects would be undertaken and when they would be accomplished. Give the voters enough information and they will make an informed decision. Give them murky information and they will reject it every time.

The current council is less than unanimous on support for the PILOT. The candidates for city council speak elsewhere in today's paper and they too are lukewarm to the PILOT as proposed on Tuesday's ballot. I'm not sure exactly what that says other than there are some legitimate differences of opinion on the matter.

Though I'll vote against the PILOT on Tuesday, I'll be more than willing to join with others and explore ways that LCRA can be fully funded and our city's future projects can be addressed. Through some additional cooperative dialogue among the various factions that make up our community, we can find solutions to these issues. It will just take time and cooperation and discussion. And those don't cost a penny.

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