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Marengo mayor, city manager questioned on business incentive deal

Published: Monday, Sept. 9, 2013 10:19 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Sept. 9, 2013 10:27 p.m. CDT

MARENGO – The City Council approved on Monday a discount on water and sewer hookup fees for an incoming business, despite a new alderman vehemently arguing that top Marengo officials initially negotiated the deal without the council's authorization.

The incentive deal would shave roughly $7,851 off the $19,977 that Sullivan's Foods would have to pay the city in water and sewer connection fees, once the new grocery store opens for business in late October.

After Sullivan's approached the city about the deal, Mayor Don Lockhart directed City Manager Gary Boden to negotiate the discount under the city's $10,000 expenditure limit. Any expense over that limit requires automatic council approval, Lockhart told the Northwest Herald.

The issue ultimately came to a vote Monday after Ward 4 Alderman Dennis Hammortree raised concerns to City Attorney Carlos Arevalo that Boden and Lockhart were purposely trying to execute the business sweetener without council approval.

Arevalo consequently advised the city's executives that the issue involved a waiver fee incentive and therefore needed council approval, regardless of the $10,000 limit.

"I thought under my expenditure authority that I could handle this administratively, but Carlos has said that we can't. So, (Sullivan's) hasn't been paid, and we are bringing it forward to the council," Boden said Monday, adding that he started negotiations on the incentive nearly a year ago.

The council approved, 6-2, the connection waiver, with Hammortree and Ward 2 Alderman Matt Keenum voting against it. The debate beforehand featured some members jarring with Hammortree.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Nicole DeBoer argued that Hammortree's criticism represented a "witch hunt" against the officials. Ward 4 Alderman Todd Hall said the issue involved a misunderstanding with the $10,000 expenditure limit.

Hammortree, a former mayor who returned to the council following April's election, said the issue speaks to a lack of transparency among Marengo's top officials.

"We are voted by the taxpayers to be good stewards of taxpayers' money, and you have a mayor and city administrator not following the process," Hammortree said. "How can a third term and a guy who has been doing this for 30 years not realize that you have to go before City Council to get approval for this?"

The deal is the second incentive given to Sullivan's, after a former council approved a sales tax rebate in February.

The more lucrative incentive entitles Sullivan's to 100 percent of the city's share of sales tax generated by the grocer for the first 18 months of operation. The discount percentage drops incrementally the next four years.

Lockhart brushed aside Hammortree's criticisms, arguing he honestly thought the connection waiver could have been handled administratively.

"There is nothing being hidden between the mayor, the City Council and the staff," Lockhart said.

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