Internet Access In Fort Scott

Fort Scott has a reasonable number of choices for internet access.  Here is a list of what is available depending on exactly where you live.

  • AT&T – DSL services provided over phone lines. Your lines can be further than 14,000 feet from the central office and some of the older lines won’t work.
  • Suddenlink – Provided over cable connections. If you can get cable, you can probably gett this.
  • RTS – Local wireless provider.
  • Valnet – A wireless provider from Independence.
  • Alpha Wireless – A new wireless provider in town. It isn’t clear if they are up and running yet or not.

That looks like quite a few options, but they all have one thing in common. They all get their bandwidth to Fort Scott from AT&T. So while there can be a certain amount of competition in how to connect your home, there is no competition in the underlying resource–access to the Internet.

Does this lack of competition drive the price up in Fort Scott? For comparison, I have a server in downtown Kansas City. For $50 per month I can get a 100 Mbps connection to the Internet. This would be enough bandwidth to let a local ISP supply reasonable service to a large number of customers. Now we’d expect that it would cost more to get a connection like that in Fort Scott than in Kansas City, but how much more? If it would cost 20 times more that would be $1,000 per month. Obviously that is more than what you’d want to put in your house, but it wouldn’t be out of reach for a business–particularly an ISP.

When I talked to AT&T about getting a connection like that, the initial price started out at around $39,266 per month. With a long contract and a special they were running, the price would come down to $31,333. After talking with a few different people, it sounded like there might be a way to cut that in half and get down to the $15,000 range. Still that is 300 times what bandwidth costs in downtown Kansas City. Could you imagine if your electric or telephone bill cost 300 times more than it costs in a larger city? Instead of a $90 per month electric bill, it would cost you $27,000 pre month. Instead of a $32 per month phone bill, it would cost $9,600.

If you were starting a business that required a reliable high speed connection to the Internet, would you go to the town where it costs $50 per month or the town where it costs $15,000? The future of small towns like Fort Scott is going to be very closely tied to their ability to tap into reliable inexpensive bandwidth. As long as everything comes through a single provider, there is no competition to drive the price down. Right now, no matter how many new ISPs start up in town, they are are all going to be reselling bandwidth from the same expensive source.

If Fort Scott wants to be competitive in the future, we are going to need to find ways to get competitively priced bandwidth into the city.

Progress On New Pool

Construction is proceeding rapidly on the new pool.  In three weeks the old structure has been removed and workers are currently digging out additional dirt for the new pool. As expected they have hit rock and are using a jack hammer on a backhoe to break it up.

Construction workers said that once they get everything dug out, they will lay in the drain line and then start pouring concrete. So far everything is on schedule. Weather is the biggest unknown and a large rain could significantly slow things down.

 

Harvest Ministries and Fraud Charges

Harvest Ministries owns the old Western building down town. In November of 2009, the Tribune ran a story about plans to turn it into a medical facility and television studio. There was also a story by KOAM.  In January of this year, the Tribune reported that the president of Harvest Ministries had been indicted on charges of fraud bankruptcy fraud.

Despite claiming innocence back in January Paul and Charolette House have both plead guilty to the charges according to eMissourian.

Apparently Mr. House pastored a church and he directed them to pay his salary to Harvest Ministries instead of to him directly. He then claimed he was not employed for bankruptcy and disability purposes while Harvest Ministries funneled the salary back into his personal accounts.

The county tax search shows that Harvest Ministries owns the property at 8 1st Street and 14 1st Street. There are outstanding taxes due on the properties of around $45,000 dating back to 2006.

With the Paul and Charolette House waiting to be sentenced early next year, it seems unlikely that there will be any plans to do anything with the building in the near future if ever.  It is possible that the county could sell the properties at the upcoming tax auction, but it may be difficult to find someone with a plan and the financing to do something with those buildings.

County Commission Meeting – October 31st

The County Attorney came in to discuss some issues related to the sewer district and moving a grinder pump. There was a discussion the best way to get electricity setup for a antenna on top of a water tower.

Jim Harris with Barry Tractor came in to discuss bids for rock crusher equipment.

 

Cowboys Like Us Is Open For Business

Saturday a new store opened downtown at 118 E Wall Street. Cowboys Like Us is a western wear and equipment store that caters to the needs of cowboy/cowgirls. The store is owned by Chelse and Yance Day who are students at the Juco. Fiance Cassie Johnson and mother Sherry Day also help run the store.

Cowboys Like Us carries a large selection of new and used equipment and clothing and name brands like Chinch, Stetson, and Serratelli. They also have rodeo equipment like helmets, vests, ropes, goat strings and tack supplies.

The goal for the store is to give people a way to shop local without needing to go to Kansas City  or Pittsburg. In addition to the new goods, the store also takes used items on consignment. Cassie Johnson said, “It’s good to have consignment items for college kids” because it helps keep the cost down and provides an outlet to sell equipment that is no longer needed.

They are working on setting up a Cowboy Wall Of Fame to help highlight local rodeo heroes.

Cowboys Like Us is open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm. Be sure to stop in and show your support for Fort Scott’s newest local business.

Old Middle School Vandalized

When Paul Feeney and his wife got to town last week to begin their project of turning the old middle school into a family entertainment location they found that the building wasn’t in the same condition they had left it. Vandals had broken in and gone through smashing most of the glass and spraying graffiti all over the walls. The floors were covered with broken glass and broken light bulbs.

There were quite a few things stolen as well including a nice weight machine and various equipment and tools. Many of the kitchen appliances were damaged and broken.  The vandals located some of the paint that had been stored by the previous owners and poured it out on the floor. A toilet had been pulled out of one of the rooms and thrown from the balcony in the auditorium.

Security cameras captured video of many of the miscreants and the police department is working on locating them.

All in all, it was a less than idea welcome to Fort Scott. Mr. Feeney said he briefly wondered if buying the building had been a big mistake, but after a few days of cleaning up the damage he is excited about the plans for the electric go-carts and other entertainment for the citizens of Fort Scott.

He still anticipates that the initial attractions should be opening in 2 or 3 years. The go carts will probably be put on the ground floor and the gym is the likely location for a climbing wall and possibly an indoor skateboard half-pipe.

He and his wife plan to live in the building and the tower in the center will be turned into an apartment with roof access and a great view of the city. Mr. Feeney said once he gets the glass cleaned up, his first priority is making sure the building is ready for winter and fixing any leaks in the roof that might lead to bigger problems later on. He said over all, the structure of the building seems pretty sound, but the roof has some leaks that need addressed–particularly in the center tower.

Another thing he is working on is getting a good inventory of what is actually in the building. He has found some unexpected surprises. There are a great number of what appears to be ceramic molds in what was once the cafeteria. It isn’t clear if those were put there by a previous owner or if they were part of the school. In a dark corner of the basement there are a number of canisters that appear to be rations and supplies from the cold war era.

The go carts that are planned for the building run on electric rechargeable batteries. Mr. Feeney expects the carts alone will cost somewhere around $200,000. He said his goal for the carts is to bring in enough to cover their operational costs and he is expecting to have a very hefty electric bill once things get going. He is less concerned about them bringing in enough to make money or even recover his initial investment.

Beyond the vandalism, there building has been left sitting for quite some time and is going to take some significant work. It appears that some previous owner may have removed much of the wiring to sell for scrap metal and the sump pumps in the boiler room haven’t been working so there is several feet of water in that area. There are many areas where the paint is peeling from the walls and plaster is falling off.

Despite all the work that is needed, Mr. Feeney’s enthusiasm is contagious and it is hard not to fall in love with the old building. Their goal of turning the school into an entertainment venue is going to require a lot of work, but it will be a great asset to the Fort Scott area and hopefully can serve as a model of what other communities can do with their large old buildings.

Commission Meeting – October 28th

Dean Mann

Dean Mann and two KDOT employees came in to discuss US Highway 69. KDOT did a meeting in Franklin yesterday to talk about the corridor from Fort Scott to Pittsburg. There is money allocated to put 4 lanes from Fort Scott South to 680th Street. This should begin in 2013 be completed by 2019.

KDOT is trying to get things prepared for the phase that comes after that. Mr. Mann said that some times the Federal government has money available for “shovel ready” projects. So the goal is to have the planning in place to take advantage of such funds if they become available. They want to complete the design and if there are no funds available it will “go on the shelf” until funds materialize. There is hope that by the time the Fort Scott section is constructed, there will be funds to continue with a four lane toward Arma.

The purpose of the meeting with the Commissioners was to ask if they would support getting the design done. While the addition wouldn’t have a direct impact on Bourbon County, it does have impact in how traffic moves through Fort Scott. Having local governments supporting the projects may help KDOT lean more favorably toward those projects instead of ones where there is not support or support hasn’t already been expressed.

Commissioner Endicott expressed concern that putting in the Arma connection might delay the Crawford County Corridor and asked if the money would be better spent on that project which would go from 680th Street through Pittsburg.  Mr. Mann explained that since the timeline of the Crawford County Corridor is unknown, the benefit of having a four lane in the Arma area may be very beneficial to have sooner (if funds become available) rather than waiting for the larger project.

Fort Scott is submitting a grant application today for a grant to turn US 69 from 18th Street to 23rd street into a 5 lane road.

The Commissioners passed a motion to support the plan as long as it didn’t delay the Crawford County Corridor project.

Dylan Morrow Director of Security SEKRCC (county jail)

Mr. Marrow talked with the Commissioners about some of the things he was doing to help reduce overtime. He also wanted to thank the Commissioners for helping him move around some responsibilities to be able to give some raises in his department.

The jail is spending a lot of money on plumbers and electricians, but that is just due to the age of the building.

Terri Johnson – County Attorney

The County Attorney suggested that the commissioners go into Executive Session to discuss a possible settlement for case 11CB45.

Another Executive Session was called for Attorney Client privilege regarding suits filed against the county and insurance claim loss ratio for 5 minutes.

Chairman Endicott asked the County Attorney what their next step should be related the allegations about the Treasurer’s office . The County Attorney said that she asked the Attorney General and KBI to look into the allegations back in August and she has yet to hear back from them regarding this request. She expects to hear back at some point in the near future.

The list that went to the abstractor in preparation for the tax sale was for 2007 and previous years delinquent taxes. In addition non-homestead properties could be foreclosed on for 2008 delinquent taxes. Ms. Johnson pointed out that from a practical standpoint there may need to be more than one tax sale depending on how property owners respond to the suit to foreclose and what type of delays occur on various properties.

There was some discussion about whether or not it makes sense to try to differentiate between homestead and non-homestead property and whether it is even possible to determine which properties fall into the homestead exemption category. In the past the county has just applied the three year rule to everyone.

Interest And Fees Being Charged Now?

No one disputes that there were mistakes made in the way that property taxes have been calculated for Bourbon County. However, any reasonable person realizes that there are going to be at least some mistakes made in this line of work no matter how careful you are.

The big question is whether the process has been fixed.  So lets take a look at an example of delinquent property that is showing it was brought current on 10/7/2010 a few weeks ago. Below is a screenshot from the tax search that raises some questions. This is for 2010 taxes. So $673.37 was due in December 20th of 2010 and the remaining $673.37 was due in May 10th, 2011. The tax rate should have been 7%, plus a $15 publication fee if the property were published in the paper.

The property is crossed out of the list that was originally sent to the paper. It is  part of the addendum to the list (see the last page of the PDF), but the amount listed as owed is off by $1,000. So it was probably printed in the paper with the rest of the property that was left of because it was part of the payment plan. However, it was not in the payment plan contracts we received.

 

There was a payment of $1,346.74 toward the tax and $7.05 toward the interest and fees on 10/7/2011. The website is showing that the amount has been paid and that there is no longer an amount due.  But the publication fee alone should have been $15.

For a rough idea of the interest that should have been charged, if we calculate 7% on the first half for January through September (10 months), it comes to $39.28 (673.37 * .07 / 12 * 10). If we calculate interest on the second portion from June through September (four months), it comes to $15.71 (673.37 * .07 / 12 * 4). That leaves off about 18 days of interest on the first payment and around 27 on the second payment. So the actual interest should be a bit higher if you calculate to the day instead of only including full months as I have done.

Still the total comes to $69.99 when you include the publication fee.  So why is it only showing $7.05?  One possibility is that payments were being made into an escrow account on the old system and the interest rate was based on the fact that a good portion of the principle was already paid. However, to only be charged $7.05 the interest would be for less than two full months on the December 20th half of the payment. In other word’s the property owner would have needed to pay almost all of the tax due except for a very small portion.

It is interesting to note that the list of delinquent taxes where this property was crossed off has the interest listed as $39 (the cents are obscured by a marker).

If the tax payer had done this, I would expect to see the December 20th half listed as paid as soon as the escrow account had enough money to pay it and given the very small amount of interest, this couldn’t have occurred any later than March. Perhaps the escrow accounts are setup to only bring the amount over, once the full tax has been paid. Even then the publication fee was not charged.

It is possible that the interest was calculated correctly and the publication fee was inadvertently omitted. The biggest problem here is that that process is not transparent and if you look at what is actually published on the website it looks like something is being done incorrectly. If the new system was being used to accept all the payments, it would be trivial for anyone to look and see exactly how the interest and fees had been calculated and how payments had been applied.

Elected Officials and Judgement Calls

The presentation of the auditor’s report has gotten many people in Fort Scott talking about how they would like to see things handled. Mr. Sercer’s report suggested that the computer system should be setup so it was impossible to override interest charges without the approval of someone from another department.

I disagree with that suggestion.

The last thing we need in government is more hoops for people to jump through to do their jobs. People are elected because we want them to use their judgement. If there is no judgement involved, what is the point of having an election in the first place?

Let me give you an example. Lets say that you are late on your taxes so you call down to the Treasurer’s office and ask how much you owe.  They look at the computer and say you owe $342.76. You make out a check, put it in the mail and it arrives at the Treasurer’s office two days later. When they go to receive the money, the computer says that you now owe $342.88.

As a tax payer, how would you prefer to see the situation handled?

  • Your money is received, but because of the $0.12 outstanding, your property gets given to the abstractor and you don’t find out about it until you discover that your property is going to be auctioned off for the $0.12. By that time there are other fees and expenses that you have to pay in order to keep your property off the sale. In addition there is all the expense of time spent by the court house to deal with another piece of property going through the tax sale procedure.
  • The person entering the amount has to ask the treasurer to override the $0.12. The treasurer needs to involve someone in another office to approve the override. All in all it takes 3 people an extra 10 minutes. Assuming an average wage of $10 apiece the cost for labor is $5 (30 minutes total x $10 per hour). So instead of being out $0.12 the county is now out $5.12.
  • The person entering the amount has enough leeway to say “close enough” but the system records the difference in a way that is public to everyone and viewable on the web. What constitutes “close enough” is set by policy by the Treasurer.

Maybe it is just me, but I would rather see the county just write off the $0.12 but handled in a public way where everyone can see it. What about you? How would you like to see a situation like that handled? In talking with employees in the Treasurer’s office it doesn’t sound like getting a check that differs by a few cents unusual. It happens on a regular basis.

I’m sure some people are asking, “but what if it starts happening for larger amounts?” That is a good question. Imagine that any time they needed to write off some interest, everyone in the county was given a chance to vote whether or not to write of the $0.12 or $2.00 or whatever it might be. Would that be fair? It might be fair, but it would require far to much time to get anything done, but in essence that is why we have an elected official. We don’t vote on every decision. We vote on the person who makes those decisions.

A very simplistic view is that the Treasurer and other public officials need to “just follow the law”. That is true, but the whole reason we have someone in that position is because there are going to be judgement calls that have to be made. If it was just a matter of following a procedure, then why are we even paying a salary for a Treasurer in the first place? They could be replaced by an ATM type device that just takes people’s money for their taxes or an online payment webpage.

As a citizen and as a tax payer, I know I want someone in that position who can act on my behalf and do what is in the best interest of the county as a whole. Many times that might mean writing off small amounts where the cost of collection is greater than the amount itself. In some cases it might mean making a decision that later turns out to have lost some money, but was still a reasonable decision based on the data available at the time.

My point isn’t to discuss the legality or ethics of a particular decision, but merely to point out that the entire reason for having a Treasurer (and other officials) is allow people to elect someone who can use their judgement to make decisions as we’d like to see them made and in the interest of all tax payers. Taking the ability to make judgement calls away defeats the purpose of electing them in the first place.

But that is my opinion.  What do you think?

Attorney General Meets with Fort Scott Citizens

Derek Schmidt, the Attorney General for Kansas, met with around 30 to 35 locals in the lobby of Citizen’s National Bank this afternoon. He is trying to visit all the counties in Kansas. He mentioned that they hired a police officer from the City of Fort Scott to do criminal investigations and she has been doing an excellent job.

Mr. Schmidt is from Independence and has a wife and two girls ages 6 and 8. He is very glad to be done with campaigning so he can focus on his job and not spending so much time away from his family.

Consumer Protection

Most of the cases the Attorney General’s office gets involved with are at the request of local government. The one area where the AG’s office does get involved is in consumer protection cases.

Mr Schmidt said that they pursue 7,000 to 8,000 consumer protection cases per year. They recently recovered $1.2 million dollars for Kansans from a pharmaceutical company. They try to weigh which cases to pursue based on protecting customers, not on the amount that can be recovered.

The Attorney General said that one of the recent scams they have seen happening is done over the phone when someone gets a call purported to be from their grandchild who lives far away. The person on the phone claims to be traveling and says they were mugged and need a couple hundred dollars wired to them to get back home. The person making the call isn’t the grandchild and is just someone who has researched enough information about the kid online in order to sound plausible on the phone.

He also cautioned against telemarketing calls raising money fro charitable organizations. While they often are legal, many times the telemarketer gets 85% of the donations and the charity only gets 15%.

Bourbon County Treasurer Investigation

Melvin Antrim said that many people in the county are paying more than they should in taxes because the Treasurer is “giving a good deal to some of her friends.” He felt the laws on the books didn’t cover accounting and pointed out that when people don’t pay their share of the taxes, the mill levy goes up, but pretty much never comes back down. Mr. Antrim also mentioned that the interest on late taxes should be distributed to the city as well as the county because they are suffering from uncollected taxes as well.

Susan Porter asked if she could present to the Attorney General or KBI before a final decision was made regarding whether or not to pursue an investigation against the Bourbon County Treasurer.

Mr. Schmidt said that he can’t confirm whether they are investigating or not and would only confirm that he was aware of the local news coverage.

As far as general procedure, he said that they do get asked to look at local cases. This year his office has sent a police chief to prison and convicted the Treasurer of another county of theft. He said that the Attorney General’s office has to look at whether a crime was committed–not whether an elected official meets the community standards for job performance. He stressed that they don’t want to second guess the voters unless they are certain criminal conduct has occurred.

An individual asked whether or not breaking a statute is breaking a law. The Attorney General explained that it is possible to break a law without being guilty of a crime and just because something is not criminal doesn’t mean it is right. He elaborated that a number of laws have no penalty attached to them and that crime is a very specific concept.

Cecelia Kramer asked what happens when they get a complaint against an elected official. Mr. Schmidt said that for them to investigate something, they would normally need to receive a request from the County Attorney.

Healthcare

Karen Endicott-Coyan asked about the healthcare law and the Attorney General’s efforts to have at least part of it overturned. Mr. Schmidt felt that it was likely that the case would be heard by the Supreme Court–possible as soon as early next year. He said that in addition to the health insurance mandate, another part of the law that he was concerned about is the way that the federal government could with hold all funding for Medicare/Medicaid programs if a state does not meet new conditions.

EPA

The Attorney General mentioned another case where Kansas is suing the federal government regarding EPA regulations. There are new stipulations saying that Kansas power plants are damaging cities in Michigan and Dallas and that they need to be fixed by January. The power plant operates have said that even if money was not a concern, they could not make changes on that timeline. If the regulations stand, a number of power plants will need to shut down or operate at partial capacity. Mr. Schmidt said that if other states have excess power, Kansas may be able to buy more power at higher rates. Otherwise someone would try to turn on their furnace in February and it might not have the power to operate. He said that the original report listed several other cities that were being hurt by Kansas power plants, but the Kansas scientists looked at it and said that the data didn’t support those conclusions. Rather than changing the demands, the EPA switched the report to different cities.

Take Charge Challenge

Today Dave Martin announced that Fort Scott won the Take Charge Challenge where communities competed to make energy efficient improvements. The award comes with a $100,000 grant that will be used to replace public lighting in Fort Scott with more efficient technology. Mr. Martin will be talking more about it on his Thursday morning radio program.