---- — I am going to shift gears in this column and write about a recent experience that I found encouraging.
I have been serving as Mt. Vernon’s representative on the Rend Lake Conservancy District Board for several years. I was appointed and re-appointed by three different mayors and affirmed by different council groups. The only charter or instruction that I have ever been given is to do what is best for the folks of Mt. Vernon and keep the mayor and council informed of any issues affecting the city. I mention this because I think it exhibits that politics has no place in an operation that is responsible for supplying quality water to approximately 160,000 folks.
For those of you who might not know, the Conservancy District operates a water supplying plant that produces over 20 million gallons a day at peak times of safe drinking water, a golf course with accompanying lodge and condos, a sewage treatment plant and leases additional land for farming. They also lease a restaurant and shooting range. This is approximately a $12 million annual operation with the largest and most important segment being the water supply, of course.
Our board consists of seven members based on a formula that allocates members based on cities and counties in the district. The current allocation is three from Jefferson County and four from Franklin County — two coming from each county and one each from Mt. Vernon, Benton and West Frankfort.
I could write a book about the debates and outright disagreements between the two groups over the years. Some of it is just the result of having strong-willed individuals with strong convictions on the board; frankly some of it has been just plain old mule headed stubbornness from both sides. I do not want to delve into this today because I want to talk about some things that have happened that I consider positive.
The district has reduced taxes over 25 percent over the last 6 to 7 years and probably the only taxing authority to do so locally. You could get a lot of hows and whys on this one.
I will give you one board members’ opinion that I think would be shared by the majority of the other members. We just made a decision to do it annually and worked the cost equation back to meet the goal. The leading board member with the “cattle prod” each year was Jere Shaw and the vote has been unanimous. This is just one example of several over the years that leave me to believe that most of our board members are not interested in representing just the district; they are interested in representing the people from their respective locations they serve.
Another example that really stands out is the tremendous improvement in the cost of Workers Compensation payments for on-the-job injuries. This is the direct result of emphasis on folks working safely by the management and board. Reducing from a cost annually of over $600,000 to less than $60,000 is certainly not too shabby.
Awhile back we had another major disagreement about re-financing the current loans which some of us thought unneeded by the district. — putting the water plant expansion, golf course and condos under one umbrella loan which in reality was using the water plant de facto to reduce the interest rates for the golf course and condos. This was approved by a 4-3 margin; Franklin County for and Jefferson County against.
Our golf operations, like many others during the economic downturn, struggles to generate revenue above the break even point. We determined that our goal should be to work harder at making this operation “bullet proof” breakeven. We voted unanimously to take some of the money we had generated in our recreation group and pay off half of the current golf course loan. We have been able to separate the water loan from the recreation loans and internally separate the golf course loan from the condos, etc., and this was a majority vote.
Does this mean that we will always agree and not debate vigorously? NO!
Does it mean that on serious issues that affect our folks that we can compromise and reach agreement? I give it a good sound “upward maybe/hope so” going forward and I am much more optimistic than before. As I was leaving our last board meeting, I thought, “we did good work for the people today.” That’s a really good feeling!
I will always remember a lesson taught to me by an old sage many years ago. A successful meeting of any group must be open, confronting and trusting. Open by allowing all views to be shared, confronting by allowing strong debate and trusting where confrontation never becomes personal. None of this is possible without trust.
I look with a jaundiced eye when boards committee’s etc., are always in agreement and vote yes on everything. We used to label this in my world the “yeah boss syndrome;” a fast way out the door for the boss because you will never get the best input.