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SBJ photo by EMILY LETTERMAN

A Conversation With … Darin Chappell on Bolivar’s rebound

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What financial state was the city of Bolivar in when you arrived?
When I came here April 1, 2012, the city of Bolivar was at that point approximately $877,000 in the red in unrestricted general reserves. Essentially they had no reserves and owed other restricted funds within the city almost $1 million. The city was extraordinarily close to having to file bankruptcy and be the first city in the state to go through that process. (In June of that year,) all we had in the account was $83,000, for a city of 10,000 people. The very next week, payroll was due and it was $92,000 at the time. I spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out how we were going to borrow money just to make payroll. I don’t care if you are public or private, if you are borrowing money to make payroll, you are in big trouble. So, the city brought me in to try and figure out how to reverse course.

What was your first step?
It had to be right now. We had to cut about $930,000 out of the budget – the very first thing I did. We had to reduce the workforce by 15 percent, 11 people. There were two more who resigned because they didn’t like the way things worked out. That was 10 days after I got here, and it was a Friday the 13th.

Has it worked out?
From that sad beginning, we now have well over $1 million in the general reserves and we’ve maintained that for over a year now. We did all that without raising taxes and without increasing fees or cutting services.

How did you manage to build up $1 million in reserves?
It was cost saving to a large degree, but we also found the way we do things matters. This is a silly thing: When I got here, there was a Cemetery Department that only took care of the cemetery. The sexton position is a clerical one and anyone who is clerically minded can be taught that. It didn’t need to be a uniquely held position. Their was a person who took care of the grass – and I don’t mean any disrespect – but grass grows there the same way it grows in the parks system. Why have an entire department? It wasn’t that we just saved the money on day one, but we are still saving that money.

So, you made fundamental changes to the way the city operated?
I’m a big believer that if government can run effectively with 59 people, even if we have money for 60 people, we should run it on 59 because this is the people’s money. But the idea that we’ve got money lets spend it – I find that abhorrent.

How did the city end up in that position in the first place?
I heard it a lot when I first came here, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.” I wasn’t really trying to be a smart aleck, but I said, “I know. They hired me to get you to quit it.”

The way we’ve always done things is not a good enough reason. Let’s take a look and analyze it – is there not a better way? That’s what our success has been about.

Is $1 million in reserves the new status quo or will you continue to grow that?
We are right at 40 or 45 percent reserve now. That means if a tornado came through like in Joplin, with the money we have now, we could continue to function for 40 to 45 percent of the year without a single tax dollar or revenue coming in.

That’s not average. The recommended standard is 25 percent; a lot of cities see that as 30 percent.

Darin Chappell is Bolivar city administrator. He can be reached at cityadmin@bolivar.mo.us.

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