Archive for Thursday, September 30, 2004

City looks to Congress for help with water plant

September 30, 2004

De Soto city officials have asked for help from the state's congressional delegation in changing the language included in legislation now before Congress.

The decision to write the state's two U.S. senators and four congressmen came after a meeting with representatives of Kessinger/Hunter and Co. The meeting failed to produce a hoped-for agreement guaranteeing the city would eventually receive the water treatment facility at the plant should Kessinger/Hunter get title to the closed 9,065-acre plant.

City officials have been leery of the consequences of a proposed amendment to the 2005 Defense Authorization Act that would allow the U.S. Army to transfer title of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant directly to a developer selected by the Johnson County Commission. The legislation became public knowledge in early July, a month after Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., introduced the amendment on the floor of the Senate in early June at Roberts' request.

The Johnson County Commission voted in January to designate Kessinger/Hunter the "potential developer" of Sunflower and July 1 approved what was called a pre-development agreement with Kessinger/Hunter that established the outline of a final agreement.

A letter drafted by City Attorney Patrick Reavey and signed by De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson and City Council members Betty Cannon, Tim Maniez, Mitra Templin and Emil Urbanek outlines the city's concerns with the legislation for the Congressional delegation and asks the the bill be amended.

The letter provides background of the city's interest and involvement with the Sunflower water plant that started when the city first leased the plant in 1998. Following the process established in federal statutes guiding the disposal of properties like Sunflower, the city applied for eventual title of the water plant. U.S. Health and Human Services approved that transfer in May 1999. Since that time, the city has spent $1 million in temporary repairs at the plant.

The city's concern, Reavey writes, is the amendment's direct transfer of the property to Kessinger/Hunter. That was different than the process now required by federal statutes and presented in a 1999 sample deed to the city. The existing process would first transfer the water plant to appropriate federal agency -- in this case the Health and Human Services Department -- and then to the city.

Also, Reavey writes the city has concerns with language in the amendment that states the direct transfer to Kessinger/Hunter is "to facilitate the reuse of the property for economic development and revitalization." That language could circumvent consideration of public health in existing legislation, which provided the basis of De Soto's public benefit request, he writes.

Enclosed with the letter to the congressional delegation was a copy of the agreement that Reavey said was prepared at the developer's request but rejected by the Kessinger/Hunter representatives at the recent meeting.

The Kessinger/Hunter representatives said De Soto "wanted too much" and were focusing on the city's needs rather than on the big picture, Templin said. Not only did they reject the prepared agreement but they also refused to offer a counter agreement that would transfer the water treatment plant to De Soto, the councilwoman said.

Instead, Kessinger/Hunter representatives wanted to start talks about how the developer and city could jointly address the long-term water needs of a growing De Soto and a redeveloped Sunflower, Templin said. Those talks were to take place as the Defense Authorization Bill was being approved.

That bill was now before a conference committee as House and Senate members tried to iron out differences in the different forms of the voluminous bill that passed out of each chamber. A spokesman for Roberts' office said that process was expected to last well into October.

Kessinger/Hunter attorney John Petersen said the letter misrepresented the discussion the proposed developer had with the proposed developer's position. At no time had representatives of the company said Kessinger/Hunter would not work with the city to help it acquire the water treatment plant, he said.

"That has never been said," he said. "That has never been contemplated. Our position has been consistently outlined in statements before the County Commission and in letters to Gov. (Kathleen) Sebelius and to Congressman (Dennis) Moore.

"What is clear is that the governor of the state of Kansas has made it very clear that her approval of this project is squarely conditional on the satisfaction of the needs of the city of De Soto in terms of the water treatment plant. We stood up and made that same commitment before the County Commission."

Petersen said the federal legislation had nothing to do with the water plant. It was meant to protect Johnson County from any liability for the environment remediation that it could incur with even momentary title to Sunflower, he said.

"I would ask the city to find me one more person involved in the transaction who agrees with their position," he said. "No one familiar with the transfer in Gov. Sebelius' office, the county, or the federal government agree with that assessment.

"That legislation is meant to protect the citizens of the county from any environmental liability and in no way impedes the ability of the citizens of De Soto to acquire and operate the water treatment facility."

Kessinger/Hunter wanted to explore mutually accepted remedies to short- and long-term water needs of the city and Sunflower, Petersen said. To that end, they have repeatedly offered to have the firm's engineers meet with city staff to review the water master plan the city had commissioned, he said.

"They will not meet with us," Petersen said. "Instead they meet with us then we get a letter released to the press and delegation. That does not create a positive atmosphere."

Anderson and the Council agreed they wouldn't start any discussions on long-term need that seemed to start with the city relinquishing its interest to the Sunflower water treatment plant, the De Soto mayor said.

But in a point Reavey also made in the letter, Anderson also questioned how a plan to comprehensively address future water needs could be addressed in such a short timeframe. That was especially true when the big picture lacked such important details as schedule and a development plan.

The uncertainty over timeline continued, Anderson said. Kessinger/Hunter's latest estimate of a closing date in May 2005 was seven months later than the first projected date, he said.

Meanwhile, the city continued to operate the water plant on a patchwork basis -- unable to borrow money for expensive upgrades without clear title -- hoping that the city's sole source of water wouldn't fail, Anderson said.

"We just can't wait any longer," he said. "We've had breaks out there and systems down all because we haven't been able to do what's needed. Nobody can say that plant will run for another 18 months with no problems whatsoever."

What the city wanted from the congressional delegation was reconfirmation in the legislation of a July 1 agreement with the Johnson County Commission that would have the county remove its opposition to an immediate transfer of the water plant if an overall Sunflower transfer was reached by an agreed-upon drop-dead date, Anderson said. The county agreement established that date as March 1, 2005.

For his part, Petersen said Kessinger/Hunter understood the city's blight and would stand by the March 1 deadline.

"We totally understand and appreciate the city cannot be in status quo forever," he said. "We're totally comfortable with that (deadline). That's the exact timeframe we have been operating in."

Notwithstanding Petersen's comments and Kessinger/Hunter's stated stance, the fact remained that its representatives refused to sign or consider further an agreement when presented with one, which was the claim the city made in the correspondence, Anderson said.

The mayor suggested the present working relationship needed to be reversed.

"Trust me for six months," he said. "We get the title, you do your deal, and then we'll work with you."

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