CLAY COUNTY — Keeping in tune with the new year, new leaders and new rules theme of the Monday, Jan. 4 county commission session, commissioners ordered work on the controversial Annex project paused and work to end state audit roadblocks to commence.
The current Annex is at 1901 NE 48th St. in Kansas City. It serves a number of purposes, including providing office spaces for the county collector, assessor and a satellite office for the Recorder of Deeds. Previous commissioners Gene Owen and Luann Ridgeway moved forward with acquiring land for a new Annex despite public and Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte’s opposition, contending a new Annex in a new location was needed because the current one was not made for the functions it serves, has issues with internet connectivity and is hard for residents to find.
Nolte and new Commissioners Jon Carpenter of the western district and Megan Thompson of the eastern district believe the estimated $20 million project that would see a new facility built in a new location is not in the best interest of taxpayers.
“We need to make sure we are doing responsible spending of the taxpayers’ money,” said Nolte.
The new commission directed staff Monday to conduct more research on the matter, including setting up a meeting with the county’s bond counsel firm. As expenses related to the work were previously under sole oversight of the often tight-lipped former Western Commissioner Gene Owen, current commissioners say they need to identify the scope of the project to date, how much has been spent and legal and contractual obligations to determine how to move forward in the best interest of taxpayers.
It is unclear if the commission will or legally can scrap the project that has received little public support and much taxpayer and elected officeholder criticism.
“There’s been a lot of information that has been kept, not only from the commission, but from staff. Our citizens also need to have a voice moving forward,” said Thompson.
Carpenter said the project will present a challenge for the county as millions have already been spent with site work underway.
Because the county’s financial stability may be an issue in light of possible losses in sales tax revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, Carpenter said spending on projects not essential to current county operations need to be curbed. The current Annex location, which suits the needs of the southern portion of the county’s population, he said, should not be an asset lost. Updating the current Annex is a preferred option, he told the Courier-Tribune.
Ending audit roadblocks
In addition to pausing work and related expenditures on the new Annex site, commissioners directed staff Monday to find out how best to end costly lawsuits and related appeals hindering the citizen-petitioned state audit of county operations.
Like other citizens of the county, Carpenter said, he looks forward to a full and thorough audit of the county, which requires cooperating with the state auditor and ending, “the string of lawsuits that have come one after the other at great expense to taxpayers … to thwart the audit.”
“The courts have made it pretty clear at this point in decision after decision that yes, the county needs to fully cooperate with our state auditor,” he said. “It would be my hope that in the very near and immediate future we move in the direction of ending whatever ongoing lawsuits and appeals the county has been paying for and to fully cooperate with the audit.”
Thompson, who previously served as county clerk and received a “good” rating in portion of the state audit of her former office, said she and her former staff cooperated fully with auditors and encourages others to do the same.
“As public servants, we shouldn’t have anything to hide. That includes our predecessors,” she said of former county staff and commissioners.
Nolte said unlike in the past where some county legal actions were taken without consent from or knowledge of the full commission, he wants new County Attorney Kevin Graham to report all options available in the audit to the full commission.
“It is helpful to all commissioners to know where we stand,” he said.
Graham said he will bring details back to the commission in the next meeting or two.