Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson talks municipal government on June 16 with city managers Stan Dobbins, of Branson; Jason Gage, of Springfield; Jimmy Liles, of Nixa; and Tracy Slagle, of Bolivar.
Eric Olson: What keeps you up at night?
Tracy Slage: City administrators don't worry. Just kidding. [Laughs]
Stan Dobbins: That's why she has a police radio right behind her.
Slage: We're in a pretty good place as far as the COVID situation now, we've had a lot of really good communication in our community. I think the health department has done a really good job of offering suggestions and recommendations to businesses. Now that businesses are starting to reopen, that's definitely lifted some weight off of our shoulders. If I had to pick one thing that keeps me up at night right now is the image of the police force. That challenge of trying to recruit a quality department in a time where it doesn't seem like people really want to be police officers because of everything that the police officers are experiencing.
Jimmy Liles: The health and safety of our communities, as well as our employees, especially coming off the COVID, as everything is starting to open back up. All of our restrictions are now gone within our community. We're just left with some recommendations and I think our community is doing a fantastic job in responding to those, but I think just being cautious, I think is kind of the big tone right now as we move forward.
Jason Gage: The unknown keeps me up at night. It feels like we've been dealing with COVID forever. Even when there's a vaccine out, we don't know about other strains, we don't know how long that's going to take. To think of our life being changed that way for that long a period of time, it's pretty difficult. What bothers me more is I don't know that we can yet anticipate the economic impacts. I tell our folks every business has a limit and when it in essence goes over a cliff. They can hold off, they can be limited for a while, but at some point the business has to close and may not reopen. Then you look at that and you think about an industry. I think we're going to see some major businesses, major industries, across the country that may not be able to make it. From an economic perspective, while we're starting to open up more and we're seeing more local activity, what we're running into is that a lot of the lack of activity goes back to people practicing that self-discipline. Maybe not going out when they typically would. That's a good thing for health, bad thing for economy. At some point, even when restrictions are off, you'll have some folks who just disregard safety. Combined with, as Tracy was talking about, the impact across the country of policing. All of us really need to take a closer look at our policing and really equality. It's a different world right now. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.
Dobbins: You asked what keeps me up at night? Nothing. I sleep like a baby. I know that sounds crazy to a lot of people. What bothers me is the things that are kind of out of our control. We as a city, we did what we felt was best for our residents. We acted very quickly. The board acted very decisively and basically we closed the city of Branson in March. We knew that there was going to be a rather difficult economic impact. It was what our businesses wanted. That impacts the county and also impacts those communities that are around us. I was and still am a little disappointed in the response we've received from both the state and the federal government on assisting our businesses with financial issues, as well as our city issues. The second thing that really disappointed me was the state had the opportunity to help communities that have been impacted if it would have enacted Wayfair for our state. Again, Missouri is one of the final two in the United States to address this problem. We're different than everyone in this region. Eighty-six percent of our economy is run on tourism. We're not well diversified. That's something I've been battling since I've gotten here. The other thing I want to say about not worrying about my sleep too much is because our community loves our police department. They embrace them. We were the first police department in this region to have body cameras. We mandate that our supervisors review body camera footage every day. On Dec. 2 it will be 40 years I've been a police officer. I was disturbed by what I saw in Minnesota. I've trained a lot of police officers. We have embraced technology and the community-oriented policing initiative. That didn't happen overnight. We have to make the commitment to go out into our communities and to talk to people. On the financial side, we all make decisions that are impacting this whole thing. I don't think we've seen the impact of all those decisions yet. And we probably won't until we actually review our budgets at the end of the year.
Olson: Branson does have a unique risk in reopening, whereas Nixa opening right now, they're not going to be seeing the volume of travelers coming into the city like Branson is. There's been a spike in the number of cases identified in Branson, doubling in the first few weeks of reopening. We're not talking large numbers.
Dobbins: It was 11 or 12.
Olson: That's activity to watch. How do you assess that spike?
Dobbins: We anticipated it. Our health department and ourselves, we communicate regularly. We look at where the cases came from. We seriously dig into the cases. We do have a plan if we were to have to scale back some things. What we've continued to preach, so to speak, is that our businesses continue to use social distancing. And I lied to you. There is one thing that keeps me awake at night. I would love to have one year without a flood, without a virus, without the earth coming to an end, without social unrest so we can kind of stabilize for a while. All of our capital projects are currently on hold until we can get a good grasp on where things go. I applaud Springfield for getting Costco. That's a great opportunity for our entire region. Walmart and Target were two of our biggest sales tax revenue drivers during the shutdown. Our reserves were very positive and still are when we started. We are a very financially conservative community.
Olson: As we talk about the reopening in your communities, what can the residents, the business owners do better to ensure greater safety and really move the economy along?
Gage: We send conflicting messages, and we don't really have a choice of doing that. We're still fairly early in the impact of the virus. We know that our economies can't be shut down forever. We'll have other health issues as a result. But as we open up our economies, we're bringing more people together, the result is they're spending money. As much as the majority try to follow the guidelines, we've seen a spike in our numbers of people that are contracting the disease. As you look across the country, we're seeing it's very low still. It's well within our capacity of our health care system. But our message becomes more and more casual because of needing to open the economy. That makes it easy for people to slip into casual behaviors. Right now and through the summer, I think we'll be fine. I'm one who is a little bit pessimistic about the fall, simply because I'm anticipating that all the schools will be open, a lot of people will come back together. I expect there'll be a lot more special activities, maybe sporting events. And again, the virus is the same until there's a vaccine or there's herd immunity, but we're far away from that. There's a good chance before fall we may be totally open in Springfield. We're at 50%. We've had a higher confidence in masking based on how we've handled the personal service providers and having a couple of people at the salons get it but none of the customers. We learned a lot because we all were hesitant to put masking high up there very high early on, especially the non-surgical masks, but now I think we're seeing impacts to them that are positive.
Slage: If our employers can continue some of the practices that have been put in place, because we do have flu season around the corner, just the cleanliness that we've all kind of stepped up our game quite a bit, making sure that we clean things more frequently, staying home when you're sick, those are things that are good for us corona or not. Corona is a bit of a challenge from what I understand, a lot of times people are contagious before they are exhibiting any symptoms. That puts a big emphasis on the social distancing aspect. If I could encourage our employers, I'd say to not tire of those practices. Make it a normal behavior so that as we go into flu season, we're a step ahead of the game.
Olson: With all these economic restrictions, how far off are your city budgets? I believe Branson is 80% off budget, Springfield is maybe 20% off.
Slage: We haven't really seen it yet. We just got our June sales tax, we're totally sales tax based. So when our businesses suffer, our local revenue suffers, as well. We saw a big influx in Walmart and things like that when the stimulus money was coming in, but we saw a slight decline in this last month's revenue. Not as much as we'd been afraid that we would experience. We're lucky here in the Midwest that we haven't seen the corona hit as badly as it has on the coast. Right now we're thinking maybe a 5% loss, but it's an unknown because we don't know what fall will bring.
Dobbins: We don't really know yet. I'm extremely proud of our finance department because they really took the bull by the horns. We anticipated because of the way our system is set up, that we would have zero sales tax revenue or tourism revenue for March, April, May, June and July. We took our budget down 45%. From my crystal ball of going out into the community and seeing what's going on, I don't think we'll be that bad. Will we be down? Absolutely. We won't be down where we anticipated ourselves going to at that 45% level. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't end up the year maybe 20% down.
Liles: As far as Nixa's tax base, we've been doing pretty well. We're slightly down. Month to month compared to last year, we were down about 2%, so really not bad at all. For the year, we're still up 6% on our general sales tax base. We're still really strong with our local economy. One of the other things that we have is the use tax that the community passed a couple of years ago. I can't tell you how important that was for our community and for our local government.
Dobbins: Rub it in. [Laughs].
Liles: If I could ever deliver a message to the other communities, it's how important that is and how that's really going to make up that gap. Year to date if you look at your data, our use tax this year over last year, it's up 28%. With the COVID, everybody stayed home, everybody shopped online and we were able to capture some of that online sales tax. As people continue to shop online, we're going to continue to see that trend. One of the decisions that we made whenever this started, we kind of took a different approach and we didn't freeze our (capital improvement projects) or our spending right off the bat because we felt it was important for us to dump that money back into our community to keep the economy going.
Gage: Our story is the same. When this came on in March, we projected 20% reduction in sales tax for the rest of the year, meaning March through June. That equated for about 5%-6% for the rest of the year. There's a delayed timeframe from when people spend their money and generate the sales tax on-site or through the mail, to the time that it's then remitted by the retail businesses, restaurants, to the state who then gives us our payment. It's usually the second month. When we were looking at March, we got our payment from the state for sales tax in early May. We've only seen two months worth and actually they were better than expected. We don't know how many businesses are still struggling because they don't have the customer base that they need. In Branson that's really tough because of the tourism aspect there. With Silver Dollar City opening up, I think that's going to start setting the tone and make it a little easier. We don't give enough credit, in my opinion, to Branson and what it means for the whole region, that's truly the tourist spot for the state. We need Branson to be healthy. They need us to be healthy. We budgeted for 2021, which would be July through June, about a 6% reduction in our general operations, mostly related to sales tax. Use tax will be higher.
Dobbins: We actually have three plans. We do have a little more time to evaluate, but we decided that it wouldn't be prudent for us to wait too long. So we've already began our budget process a month early. We've got three plans ready, kind of the, I won't say the world's coming to an end plan, but close to that, and then we've got the plan of seeing a middle of the road reduction in our sales tax. And then we've got a plan of if the world comes back as we know it and we can get back to where we were. You don't want to be sitting there with the ability to do what's good for your community and holding onto any sales tax dollars that could be improving the life of your residents and your visitors.
Olson: I want to hear you all weigh in on the conversations on the national level of police reform. There's discussion even to the degree of defunding police departments. Where do you all stand on that conversation? What would reform look like?
Liles: I spent 20 years in law enforcement before coming to this job. I can't be any more proud of our police department and the community support that we have. Anytime you're looking at officers, I think that you have to look at three things. One, you have to recruit the right person, and two, you've got to set the right culture within the department. And then three, you've got to provide the follow-up with training. We have a very strong, community-oriented police department and we've been that way for many years. We do that intentionally because we want to hear from our community. We will not just fill boots, so to speak. We'll run short-handed if we don't find the right people. We spend a lot of resources, a lot of man hours, a lot of financial resources on training. When you look at a small department like the city of Nixa, the majority of our budget for our police department goes for the salaries of the police officers. That's just having people on the streets that we need to maintain the safety of our community. We have a large portion of that that goes for training. Anytime you start cutting back budgets in a small city like ours, you're looking at cutting the number of officers or cutting training. Both of those things are counterproductive.
Slage: It's time to really embrace community policing, embrace servant leadership in our police officers. You don't just want to fill a spot. You want to find the right people for the job.
Gage: You are after the best quality people you can possibly find. You have to be because they have difficult jobs and difficult decisions to make. They don't have time to pull up a book and study it. They have to do it right then on the spot with emotions, with certain variables that aren't controllable and with a lot of danger around them from time to time. We're a little more urbanized. We're larger. We have some crime challenges we're dealing with and this has not been a good year for us. We lost an officer and that's very disheartening. It's very difficult. And then just recently had an attempt on an officer's life. They're under a lot of stress and I tell people all the time, that is not a job for everyone. We're proud of our department. We're fully accredited. We have our own training academy that gives us opportunities not all departments have. Not everyone's perfect, but we're proud of what our officers do and how they perform, particularly in the context of what they have to do. It's a difficult balance when we see the need for a change in policing in certain places, and then ask ourselves, do we need that here? It's easy to say we don't need it here, but what happens when you're a good government, you have to be open to what are those new approaches. We need to be a part of the national conversation. What happened to George Floyd was a horrible thing right there in front of the country and really the world. This is really getting away from policing, but we've seen impacts to African-Americans for hundreds of years that should not be there. We're talking about hatred, we're talking about disrespect for life. It's about a much broader issue about how we as humans treat each other.
Dobbins: I've been doing this for my whole life. When I came to Branson, I made a public statement that I felt like I had stepped back into the 1980s. I had a police department that had some great people in it that hadn't been trained appropriately. We were not utilizing funds appropriately to train our personnel to be the best they can be. As leaders of our organizations, we shouldn't be waiting for something like this to happen before we have done the right thing in reviewing our policies. I can't say what happened in Minnesota, but if the city manager up there and the mayor and the board were not aware of how their police department functioned, that's a failure all the way around. I've taught defensive tactics for years. There was never a defensive tactic where you literally put your knee on someone's neck. I know in my heart (our police department is) doing the right thing by their community because they are constantly monitoring what goes on and they're willing to make those changes. That's what our community should be expecting from us.
Excerpts from an interview by Features Editor Christine Temple, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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