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We sat down with Heath Kaplan in the council chambers at city hall at 8:30 on Friday morning, September 19th, after his first 30 days on the job as Poplar Bluff’s new city manager. During our hour and a half interview, Kaplan was forthright, knowledgeable and assertive. There wasn’t any issue we touched upon that he didn’t have a well thought out answer for. One cannot help but be impressed by his passion and drive. Kaplan’s now a Poplar Bluffian and talks as though this is his hometown now.Q.
Given you’ve been on the job 30 days now, what are your impressions of Poplar Bluff?A. I’ve been very pleased with the city. There is no shortage of individuals here who want to do the right thing. The city of Poplar Bluff is in a time capsule. It simply hasn’t reached out to the outside professional world to collect and apply best practices. That’s the best summary of how I would describe the city. That would be it. Q.
During the search committee and council interview process, the buzz was that Kaplan is a “fixer.” What is a fixer?
A. It’s a generic term, but what I like to do is apply the standards of best practices with the Government Finance Association and the City Managers Association. There’s really no science behind it, it’s like a checklist. You analyze your city based on those practices and check them off one by one.
I always start with the ledger and work my way up. As long as people in elected positions understand what is on their ledger, that’s what makes for a representative and effective government.
Poplar Bluff is not unique in having part-time elected officials who have no experience in governmental settings. That is why they appoint a trusted manager to educate them on these items.
It’s also about being transparent from A to Z. Which starts with our web site.
We are going to have to completely re-architect the city’s web site for visitors and taxpayers so they have good viable information on the city when they want it. It needs to be updated on a continual basis so people have access to the information in order to make informed decisions.Q.
At a previous council meeting you said that the city had not followed its budget for “many, many, many years” and has “historically operated” this way. Can you explain?A. A budget is just a plan, a best guess. Things happen throughout the course of a year that make it necessary to amend the budget. That’s really no big deal. I don’t fault former administrations for not following the budget, I fault them for not informing the council ahead of time before the expenditures were completed as to what was going on. That’s really all you need: full-disclosure of what you are doing, why you are doing it and getting authorization.
Where the city of Poplar Bluff has room for improvement is in its management of its cash and management of its programs and services it provides the public. When you look at the core mandated services that the city provides, that’s where you should be basing your budget; then you can provide the non-mandated or discretionary services.
Poplar Bluff is an interesting animal, though it’s not unique in this, where the city has been investing in discretionary items versus mandated. The coliseum is a great example of that.
We have miles and miles of dirt and gravel roads and instead of paving those we built this beautiful, multi-million dollar entertainment facility. It makes a citizen wonder where the city’s priorities are.
The city passed a sales tax to pay for the principle and interest of the building but there should have been a plan of sustainability to show how it could break even which it hasn’t been able to do. That’s what I need to work on.
The way we are going to do the budget process is a lot different this year. We are going to set up meetings in each of the wards. We want to hear from the public, “What services do you want?”
The only way you can have fair representative government is by asking the people you represent what they want from their government. Based on the feedback we collect from that process, it will guide us on our priorities for what we fund in 2015.
We don’t have enough money to fund everything, but we can listen and prioritize for when the money is available.
I’m excited about it. I want the public to be excited about it. I have noticed a lot of frustration about the city not being responsive to their needs, I’m hoping we can change that.Q.
How’s the financial stability of the city? And what types of changes would you like to see made with regards to the city’s financials?A. If you look at the city’s audit over the last three or five years, the city is not financially stable. It is not balanced. When you look at the amount of money they’re taking out of the reserves to plug holes in the budget, it is not sustainable.
Money is very precious in this economy. The city is very fortunate, it has had very strong reserves and I take my hat off to former administrations for that. The sale of the cable was able to retire debt and increase cash reserves and that was a good transaction for the city.
Here’s the other thing I’m concerned about. I’m not even sure that the city had all of the financial tools and information in front of them to make these decisions. My first week at looking at the financials, I found out that the huge half of the city, being Municipal Utilities, is not even available for Finance Director Mark Massingham to review. It raises huge eyebrows.
The city and Municipal Utilities both have their own accounting software. Does that make any sense? We own two licenses of the same software. In addition to that we have payroll software and purchase order software duplicated.
The only time you have had any combined financial statements has been the audit, outside of that it doesn’t exist in the city of Poplar Bluff.
You’ve had an accountant working over at Municipal Utilities who has had very strong discretionary autonomy to make decisions that I do not believe that position should have been able to make. I’m not pointing at the individual saying that was this person’s fault, this was management’s failure.
There is no reason you can convince me that these two major halves of the city are separate and blind from one another. I’m combining them into one master ledger: keeping funds separate on the ledger; still keeping our fiscal integrity in place.
But when council asks for a revenue expenditure report of all funds, it is click-print-here-you-go.Q.
A lot of building is going on at the north end of town with WalMart, Southern Bank, the new high school and Oak Grove Road widening. Can you tell us about the Transportation Development District’s (TDD) health? And, does the city have any financial exposure in the TDD?A. The TDD is a good economic tool to use in the state of Missouri but it shouldn’t be misused. And I don’t think the tool has been misused here. Basically I believe that the TIF and TDD were done properly and were a good investment as long as the developers build out as agreed.
There are components of the TDD that are over budget but I don’t see any concerns. Though I don’t see it having problems going forward, if the TDD should ever go into default, the taxpayers of the city would not have to take on that default.
One of the things I want to touch on is providing right-of-way access for pedestrians. We don’t have enough sidewalks in this community. We don’t have enough places for people to safely walk, run or bike. We need to address that.
My goal is to try to connect every park with at least a sidewalk so that from any community you can walk on a sidewalk to get to our parks and home safely. Where we can address that through the TDD, we will. And, city-wide we will let council address it.Q.
Any thoughts on how to bring more higher-paying manufacturing-type jobs to our community?A. No one can just wave a magic wand, this is going to take time to develop quality of life infrastructures which include parks, right-of-ways, and good schools. The school is making a major investment in their infrastructure and the city needs to do similar things to develop quality of life initiatives that will attract businesses.
A lot of the qualities businesses look for in a community are already here, but not all. It’s going to take years in developing the city, putting us on a course of sustainability.
This city hall represents the City of Poplar Bluff. If I brought a firm to invest in our community into our city hall, they’d see we haven’t even invested in ourselves. It’s admirable that we reused a building in order to save money, but we are going to have to address this issue of a new city hall, police station and municipal court very soon.
The city hall doesn’t have to be a Taj Mahal, but it should be a symbol of the community and our city hall is not. If you were a visitor that came to Poplar Bluff, what would your impression be? We need tools to attract new businesses. A new city hall, by itself, isn’t going to attract them, but it is a necessary step.Q.
Is it true that 10% of the city’s streets are still unpaved? Is that common for a city our size?A. Yes, it’s about that much and, no, it’s not common from my experiences.
Unimproved gravel roads in the city suppresses land values and creates an unhealthy environment for those who have asthma and allergy sensitivities.
I want to see these gravel roads paved within the city limits. It has my attention and it definitely will be a high priority of mine. Don’t get me wrong, it will take some time to get all the roads paved.
We have a very good streets department and I think a lot of this can be done by them, but where we need to we will budget for it. We have money from the cable sale. I can’t think of a better use for some of it to be used to start our campaign of aggressively paving these roads.
In addition to the Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds and some of the cable sale funds, I’ll put money aside in our general budget each year as well.Q.
Each of the five newest council members ran on lowering electric rates for the citizens, is that a campaign promise they will be able to keep?A. At this point I don’t have enough data to tell you one way or another where the electric rates should be. But I can tell you that you have a council which is very sensitive to the economic impact the rates have on personal finances. I’m going to be working with Municipal Utilities in finding efficiencies. I’m not talking about in staffing, but there are other ways we can find to cut costs. Q.
What about our city’s current health insurance issue?
A. The city has run a major deficit in their self-funded health, dental and vision insurance for way too long. We have a responsibility to bring in the expertise to work with my team and put together a plan that is sustainable for these employees. I believe that will have a positive impact on our employees and a positive impact on our budget. That’s one of the low-lying fruits I’m hoping to provide the city with right out of the gate.
We put together a volunteer committee of seven employees for the city: four from municipal utilities, one from police, one from fire, and one from streets. These employees volunteered to be a part of this process and review proposals and provide feedback and recommendations. Their decision was unanimous in their recommendation of a consultant.Q.
You recently hired a grants coordinator for the city, can you help our readers understand what a grant writer can do for a city such as ours?A. We’ve got a lot of good intentions going on in the community. You have Ozark Foothills doing good work but they are concentrating on certain programs. We have HUD money coming in for our housing authority. The chamber, too, is focused on bringing in grant money to the community. But there is a lot of money we are leaving on the table.
I believe our fire department needs assistance in U.S. Justice grants and I believe there is home security money that is available we can aggressively go after. I believe there is money to help people who are interested in reinvesting in their homes we can provide assistance with. I believe we can push more aggressively in getting funds for our downtown redevelopment plan here in Poplar Bluff. I can just keep going on and on and on.
If a grants coordinator is doing their job properly, they will bring in ten-fold over their salary. As long as it’s at market rate, hiring a grants coordinator should be a non-issue.Q.
What has been your biggest surprise since interviewing for this position?
A. Nothing has surprised me quite yet. I did a lot of research before coming to this community. I haven’t had anything that has hit me up side of the head that I wasn’t expecting…even the politics.
You just had to do a quick google search to figure out what you were getting into here. I was well prepared, knew what I was getting into, knew the politics of the community and nothing has surprised me yet.Q.
Do you see yourself converting to a Cardinal’s fan?
A. Yes and no. The Detroit Tigers will always be my home town team and will always have a place in my heart. But I was also born in Bellville, IL, which was right across the bridge from St Louis. I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for St Louis as a community. St Louis, and even Missouri in general, has an approach to maintain, protect and preserve historical infrastructure. I’m impressed by that.