The friction between the Jackson County Legislature and County Executive Frank White Jr. continued Monday with a move by the Legislature on an action White’s administration says conflicts with state law.
On a 7-2 vote, legislators moved ahead with an ordinance introduced by Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence, to tighten procedures on budget transfers, which Waits said “would be very beneficial to the Legislature on the budget and issues in the days ahead.”
Legislators discussed that proposal at a special meeting last Wednesday, but on Monday County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon said a question had come up since then, causing him to take another look at the issue. He said he hasn’t had time to develop a formal opinion and asked for time to do so.
“I think it’s probable that this ordinance would conflict with state law …” he said, though he did not elaborate on what that conflict would be.
Waits pressed for moving ahead.
“I think we have significant issues, ongoing issues with the jail ...” he said, mentioning also the future of the Rock Island Rail Corridor Authority, whose executive director quit two months ago and which could be part of a reorganization White has said he’s considering. Waits also disputed White’s claim that Chief Financial Officer Troy Thomas abruptly quit two weeks ago. Waits said Thomas was fired but added, “That maybe is yet to be determined.”
Waits said legislators need to act.
“... sitting here doing nothing I don’t think helps,” he said.
Legislators voted 7-2 to approve Waits’ proposal. Legislator Tony Miller, D-Lee’s Summit, cited Nixon’s comments in voting no, and Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, said her vote was “regrettably no.” It was the same 7-2 split as on a vote last Wednesday for legislators to add budget and financial analyst, a special projects analyst and a “public liaison” official, all under the Legislature. Waits, who also introduced that measure, said legislators need “some seasoned help” on budget and other issues.
After Monday’s vote on the financial rules ordinance, White said he would look at his options, including vetoing it. Late in the day, his office released a statement that harshly criticized the vote but stopped short of announcing a veto. In that release, the statement attributed to White said legislators “voted for an ordinance that they knew was against the law because they wanted more power and they wanted to score political points.” He said he favors instead “an independent evaluation of the county’s financial and procurement policies” and said those results would be made public.
Legislators have already had the county auditor taking a look at 1,100 budget transfers of more than $7 million this year, many of which have cut into county reserves. Legislators for months have been asking more pointed questions about fund transfers, many of them involving the County Detention Center.
Legislators on Monday delayed action on a contract for outside help with jail security, specifically screening to cut down on contraband. There is no money in the budget for those positions.
“I don’t want to see us get locked into a long-term contract with this, with these people,” said Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, who suggested using sheriff’s deputies instead.
Legislators said the issue could come up in budget talks in a few weeks.
Legislators also have expressed frustration that White has not outlined long-term plans for a new jail after a consultant eight weeks ago called the current facility “an outdated, failed jail complex.” A new jail could cost $150 million to $180 million, and legislators have said a major new funding source – likely a bond issue approved by voters – would be needed. White initially indicated that he would quickly lay out a proposal, but he has not done so.
“I thought we would have had a battle plan by now,” said Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs.
White is to release his proposed 2018 budget in two weeks, and legislators typically approve it in early December. Grounds said the major issues with the jail, plus other budget issues, will have to be worked out in the coming weeks of budget considerations.