The City of West Plains recently responded to an anonymous complaint from the Missouri State Auditor’s “Whistleblower Hotline” concerning the Parkside House in the Butler Children’s Park. The complaint opened an investigation into the matter.
According to a city press release, per the request from the State Auditor’s Office, the City of West Plains has provided the following information to the State Auditor:
1) Documentation showing the passing of the City of West Plains’ budget for 2020;
2) Documentation showing the City of West Plains is not in violation of its own charter when using funds allocated for other expenditures to enhance the property at the Butler Children’s Park;
3) City council meeting minutes from 2017, 2018 and 2019;
4) The budget for the fiscal years ending March 31, 2019 and March 31, 2020; and
5) Quarterly expenditure statements for each quarter for the fiscal year ending in 2019 and the first quarter of the fiscal year ending in 2020.
To fulfill the state auditor’s requests, the City of West Plains had to submit over 1,600 pages of documentation “at considerable time and expense” to West Plains’ taxpayers, said City Finance Director Todd Harman. “The City of West Plains is proud of the fact that its constituents are given the budgetary prudence and professionalism they deserve,” Harman wrote to the Auditor’s Office. “I hope this is evidenced by our responses to your request for information, the council meeting minutes spanning three fiscal years, and the over 1,600 pages of data submitted as support.”
West Plains City Council members and City staff have wrestled with the future of the House since the Parks Department moved out of the structure in 2014, choosing at that time to give the Friends of Parkside a chance to raise the funds necessary to renovate the House for a Discovery Center. After sitting vacant for four years, and with the group’s inability to get any financial traction on the project, the city says it became apparent in 2018 that an alternative plan would be needed to make the park a viable asset for the youth of the community.
The West Plains City Council publicly solicited proposals for the Butler Children’s Park from June 25 to August 1 last year. Only two proposals were submitted – one from the Friends of Parkside, and one from the City of West Plains staff.
The proposal presented by the Friends of Parkside called for a full renovation of the House, with estimates ranging from $600,000 to $1 million, to convert the structure into a Science Discovery Center. City council had concerns about the viability of that project, including the Friends’ previous inability to raise the funds necessary for the renovation, how the Center would financially support day-to-day operations and staffing, the overall lack of space needed for a Discovery Center, and insufficient parking in the area. The plan would have been contingent on grant funding.
The city says the dilemmas it faces are three-fold: Expense, purpose, and safety. According to Harman, the estimated cost to renovate the Parkside House was estimated at $793,000 in 2015 based on a feasibility study prepared by an architectural and engineering firm in June, 2015. However, with inflation, current tariffs, and the cost to repair four years of additional deterioration, that cost likely swells to $1 million, according to Harman. He added that the estimated expense of maintenance and utilities is approximately $1,000 per month.
West Plains Mayor Jack Pahlmann, who has resided in West Plains since 1973, said he understands the emotions and sentimentality associated with the house. However, as an elected public official sworn to uphold the Constitution and to serve all citizens in the City of West Plains, Pahlmann said he also understands the difficulties faced by the city with being asked to renovate and maintain an old structure in the middle of an active children’s park.
Pahlmann said there is one primary question he asks himself when considering the future of the Butler Children’s Park: “What is best for the children?”
“And that’s what it boils down to,” said Pahlmann. “Bob and Pearl Butler donated that land to benefit children. What the city is proposing is to build a playground that will benefit children of all abilities. At