Will Cave Springs emerge from rocky conditions?
If the little Benton County town of Cave Springs were ever to grow big enough to have its own high school, perhaps the mascot would be the blind cave fish.
Those little critters, living in cold waters in caves around the Springfield plateau of the Ozark Mountains, are endangered, adversely effected by damage to their ecosystem brought on by development and other changes. But they’re hanging on and have long found the interior of the cave system for which the 3,800-resident town is named a hospitable environment.
The cave fish live in the dark, a condition apparently similar to the environment in which the city’s elected officials have become accustomed. How else can anyone explain the damning report recently released by the state’s Legislative Audit that revealed city leaders had overcompensated employees, made purchases beyond authorized amounts and mismanaged taxpayer money?
The report said the city failed to meet the requirements of state law in 22 instances in 2015 and 2016.
The city recorder-treasurer, Kimberly Hutcheson, was overpaid by $14,509 in 2016, the auditors found.
Auditors also found the city had spent $10,490 more than the City Council authorized for the purchase of a vehicle in April 2016. The city paid more than authorized for the $23,500 base unit, then the vehicle had accessories that added $10,155 to the cost.
Justin Eichmann, the city attorney who returned to give legal advice in April after resigning last August in a clash with Mayor Travis Lee, called the audit report “one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The audit found misapplication of money. For example, $61,307 was pulled from the city’s street fund and placed in its general fund, a move that breaks state law, according to auditors. More than $131,000 of franchise tax revenue pledged to serve the city’s debt was moved to the street fund in 2016, the auditors said. Eichmann said that error has been corrected.
Mayor Lee hired attorneys without City Council approval, the audit said. The city also paid a vendor $1,093 to set up a nonprofit called Friends of Cave Springs, for which the mayor, recorder-treasurer and a city employee were officers. Auditors said that conflicted with the state Constitution. Not to mention the fact that with “friends” like these, who can afford enemies?
Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith earlier reviewed the failure to authorize the property tax and found no evidence of criminal intent. He’s said to be reviewing the audit’s findings. It has seemed he’s eager to stay out of the fray in Cave Springs — who can blame anyone for that? — but the audit can hardly be ignored. He’s the prosecutor and the audit demonstrates serious problems with the way Cave Springs leaders are conducting business on behalf of the public they represent.
Neither Lee nor Hutcheson spoke with this newspaper’s reporter immediately following the release of the audit report. In the past, they’ve had a tendency to point their fingers at each other when it comes to blame for city issues. Who would be shocked if it happened again?
Cave Springs, as an organization, is a mess. The mayor may not be the cause of it all, but he’s the city’s top elected official and has a responsibility to take the lead in working out these deficiencies. Hutcheson has sued Lee and some alderman, claiming they were preventing her from doing her job. Some city employees have sued Hutcheson and some aldermen, claiming they were targeted because they supported Lee.
Beyond the interpersonal clashes, the list of errors and omissions the audit found are quite extensive. At the least, it’s evidence Cave Springs’s dysfunction isn’t just about personalities, but capabilities. The people who live in Cave Springs deserve so much more from their elected leaders. It’s hard enough to run a town when everyone is cooperating and the rules are being followed. Throw in some conflict and disregard for state laws and city policies and chaos is guaranteed.
Some may write such circumstances off as just typical smalltown politics, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Small towns are filled with smart people who know how to get things done and how to be self-sufficient. Their leaders need to find ways to work together and if they find themselves incapable, it may be time to move into another line of work.
The health of the blind cave fish is a strong indicator of the conditions of the environment surrounding its habitat. In Cave Springs, the capacity of elected leaders to cooperate toward effective government is a strong indicator of what kind of community the city will become.
No future is guaranteed for either the city or the cave fish. Only one of them will thrive in dark conditions.