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City votes to curtail voter voice on bonds

Marion trying to exempt itself from state law requiring debt referendums

Staff writer

On a split vote, Marion City Council passed a charter ordinance allowing the city to circumvent state law regarding voted approval of borrowing.

Statutes specify that bonds for public improvement may be issued after a city engineer has developed a master plan for development and voters have approved the borrowing in a referendum.

The charter ordinance approved Monday with council member Ruth Herbel opposed eliminates the requirement of a vote and specifies that the master plan be submitted by the city administrator, not a city engineer.

The change will go into effect 60 days after the charter ordinance is published in this newspaper unless a protest petition bearing signatures equivalent to 10% of the voters in the most recent city election is presented to the city clerk.

Council members were warned before their vote Monday night that a petition would be prepared and would circulate as soon as the charter ordinance is published.

Citizens would not lose their voice in borrowing decisions but would have to organize to be able to voice their opinion.

As with the charter ordinance exempting the city from state law, bond issues would be subject to a petition process.

Citizens would have 30 days (half the time they will have with the charter ordinance) to gather signatures of 10% of all 1,352 eligible voters, not just a number equivalent to 10% of the approximately 400 people who most recently voted.

If the petition drive is successful, the proposed bond issue then would be set up for the type of referendum that now automatically is required for city borrowing.

Another change included in the charter ordinance approved Monday would allow the city to borrow not just for improvements to the existing city but also to acquire land already part of the city and to purchase vehicles or other personal property to be used in relation to the improvements.

Absent a successful petition drive, all that would be needed would be for the city to pass a resolution by a simple majority specifying the amount and purpose of bonds.

A two-thirds super-majority, as if required for charter ordinances, would not be required.

For weeks, the city has discussed issuing $1.875 million in bonds which officials said would be paid for with proceeds of a 0.75% sales tax imposed 21 years ago to pay for improvements in the city’s industrial park.

The sales tax has instead been used for such purposes as paying for an economic development director.

Of the bond money, $850,000 would be used for the industrial park.

The rest of the money from the new borrowing would pay for 10 city blocks of street work.

Marion resident Darvin Markley, a member of the planning and zoning board, spoke against charter ordinance before council members voted.

“I am for street improvements,” Markley said. “I keep hearing about a plan for a street improvement bond, then find out there is a lot more than just street improvements in it, and it exemptx us from the debt limits set by the state.

“It also takes the citizens’ right to vote on the bond. The Kansas legislature had granted us that right, and you want to take that right away, making the citizens bring a petition forward.

“The citizens are the co-signers of the bond, pledging our property tax against the bond. That is why the citizens should have the right to vote on it,.”

Despite assurances from city officials that the bonds would be paid off using sales tax revenue, Beth Warren of bond consultants Ranson and City Code Financial said that because the proposed bond would be a general obligation bond, it would have to be paid from property taxes if the sales tax was not sufficient.

“That 0.75% sales tax will make that bond payment,” mayor David Mayfield said in reply to a question from Herbel. “If you want to raise taxes and not have this charter ordinance, we can do that.”

Warren said the charter ordinance would give the city more flexibility.

Herbel said she’d feel better taking the issue to a vote of the people. Mayfield, Zach Collett, Chris Costello, and Jerry Kline voted in favor of the charter ordinance.

City administrator Roger Holter said the ordinance opened funding opportunities for the future.

“Where it really helps the city is for roadway projects, with the federal relief money,” he said.

Some council members apparently were confused when the ordinance was voted.

Costello said he thought when he voted on the charter ordinance that it was a step toward issuing bonds.

“It’s a procedure we have to go through to be able to issue a bond, which is borrowing money for the city,” Costello said. “I know you have to jump through several hoops.”

Herbel said she thought the ordinance approved the use of bonds to buy land, equipment, vehicles and personal property.

When she questioned Warren, Warren said the ordinance removed the city’s debt limit.

“Beth said it removed the debt limit, and she said it was the only thing it was doing,” Herbel said.

The actual ordinance includes no provision regarding debt limits.

Kline declined to comment. Mayfield and Collett did not return calls.

Warren told council members they should narrow down their priorities and decide what projects to do with bond money between Aug. 10 and Oct. 24, when the 60-day protest period for the charter ordinance will expire.

Markley said he’s already was preparing a petition to circulate after the ordinance is published, which is likely to happen next week.

Last modified July 28, 2022

 

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