Ballot item on landfill smells rotten to me

Published 12:29 am Sunday, October 4, 2009

Much has been spoken and written to this point regarding the City of Selma’s proposed $12 million bond issue. Voters will have a chance to vote up, or down, a myriad of items ranging from improvements at the public library to a fancy, high priced communication system for the city’s first responders.

The bond issue is Mayor George Evans’ first attempt to flex some political muscle, just as the prior bond issue, soundly rejected by voters in 2008, was former Mayor James Perkins’ last.

Unlike Perkins’ attempt to push an all or nothing agenda on voters, Evans, unlike Perkins, listened when formulating his plan for this bond issue, allowing voters to vote all or nothing, or to vote individually on groups of items. One group, for example, includes putting aside funds to raze dilapidated structures in each ward. Another includes the aforementioned communication system and other technological improvements.

Email newsletter signup

There is one item, though, that is troubling. According to the official ballot, if approved by voters Oct. 27, the city will spend $100,000 on something related to a landfill on J.L. Chestnut Boulevard.

Certainly the landfill, which will be mothballed soon, is an eyesore and needs some attention to promote security and aesthetics, but apparently the council doesn’t know what it wants to do, or how much it’s going to cost. At least that’s what Evans said during a recent public meeting at the St. James Hotel.

At that event I asked Evans to explain what the funds were going to be used for. His short answer was he didn’t know. Such a response is concerning to say the least. How could the majority of the council and the mayor of this city approve an expenditure of $100,000 (pending voter approval) for the landfill and not know how it’s going to spend the money?

So that begs the question – what about the other items in the bond issue? Does the council indeed understand what each item is going to cost? Or is it simply fattening its collective checkbook with a list of probable items, only to come back at a later date and “change its mind” about how the money will be used?

If the actual ballot is any indication, it could happen. During Evans’ many town hall meetings, individual items were discussed, but the official ballot lumps items under broad categories. That means, for instance, that if the category “Recreation,” which contains $1.5 million in expenditures, is approved by voters, the council legally has to spend that much money in that departmental area, but not specifically on the items designated by the mayor and his department heads.

I posed the question of how the money could be spent to the council’s attorney, Jimmy Nunn, who said the list of items made public could be changed, but he thought it unlikely.

“It’s not a certainty, it can be changed,” he said of the proposed list of expenditures, saying one type of lawn mower might be substituted for another, or that they might find the price has fluctuated from the initial quote. “That’s a choice the council has. But I don’t see the council changing what they’ve told the public the money would be used for.”

Certainly listing 60-plus items on a ballot would be exhaustive and confusing to voters, not to mention the cost of printing such an extensive ballot would be prohibitive at a time when the city, like many other cities, is treading water and trying not to drown in a recessionary tidal wave. But I would expect the city leaders to know before approving an expenditure of funds what those funds are going to be spent on and, within reason, how much items are going to cost. Such a move is fiscally correct and is expected of any governing body that is financed through public funds.

Prior to the referendum I hope the mayor and council will make public what their intentions are for the landfill fund. The public deserves to know before we go to the polls.

Dennis Palmer is publisher of The Selma Times-Journal. He can be reached at 410-1712 or by email: