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The people have spoken

Osceola City Council reverses earlier decision to end casino contributions to Murray, Woodburn

During the Osceola City Council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 21, members voted unanimously to stop casino contributions to the towns of Murray and Woodburn that had been occurring for 20 years. At a special session held Tuesday, March 14, the decision was reversed.

“I want to make a motion to restore that funding to its previous level, and I do not tie any condition or expectation of a vote in the future or an action in the future with it,” said Councilman Dr. George Fotiadis.

The councilman made the initial motion to phase out the funding during the Feb. 21 meeting. While members voted in the way they felt was best for Osceola, their constituents disagreed — and the council listened.

“The people of Osceola said, ‘No, we don’t want you to do this,’” said Fotiadis. “The people of Osceola said, ‘We’re looking out for the people of Murray and the people of Woodburn.’ Even though this is revenue that they could use, they said, ‘No, it’s the right thing. It’s the right thing to keep it going,’ so, I credit the people of Osceola with putting us right, or at least, putting me right.”

The council voted 5 – 0 to continue providing the donations to both towns, though no formal agreement is in place to guarantee those funds for the future. The vote was made to a packed house, including a WHO-TV Channel 13 News crew.

While addressing the council, Fotiadis referenced a letter received from Murray City Administrator Denise Simmons.

“In the heat of the letter, there were things said, like ‘unethical’ and ‘immoral’,” he said.

In the letter, Simmons took issue with the manner in which the decision on the casino contributions was made. Murray officials were not notified before the issue came up for vote or before Murray created its budget for the year. The town receives roughly $30,000 a year through the agreement. Those funds were incorporated into the city’s budget and earmarked for road construction.

“It would have been different if they’d talked to us in January,” said Simmons, noting the decision came too late for Murray to amend their budget to reflect the loss.

The council’s earlier decision had its share of supporters. Twenty years later, there are people in all three towns questioning why the contributions come from Osceola instead of Clarke County. The manner and the timing of the vote left the towns’ and county’s hands tied.

“We’ve already done our budget,” said Clarke County Supervisor Bill Black. “There’s no money for Murray or Woodburn. It wasn’t a consideration. We didn’t know about it.”

Woodburn and Murray expressed similar frustrations. It wasn’t just the revenue lost, but that it was lost without warning. The decision took place before citizens had the chance to make their case.

“In hindsight, we probably should have taken no action that day and tried to get ahold of Murray,” said Councilman Doug Gay. “That’s the only regret I feel. Other than that, it doesn’t make a whole lot of financial sense.”

It’s a fairly unique arrangement between city governments, with one gifting sizable amount of money to the others with no control over how the funds are used. It’s also unique in that no legally binding contact exists that controls the terms of the agreement.

Simmons also said Osceola Mayor Thomas Kedley insinuated the casino funds would disappear if the council didn’t vote in support of the new reservoir agreement earlier this summer.

“Fearing that Murray was considering reneging on its commitment to the reservoir project, a discussion was held about Osceola’s continued support of Murray,” said Kedley. “I wasn’t trying to influence their votes. I wanted to stop funding them.”

Further, Simmons said, the June, July and August casino contributions were held up until after Murray approved the agreement. Kedley denied the contributions were held until after Murray’s vote of approval. A look at Woodburn’s accounts showed the same months’ payments were delayed. Officials said it was due to city staff constraints.

In the end, said Simmons, Murray approved the new agreement based on a thorough discussion of the project. Once the council understood the new terms, the measure was passed.

Moving forward

Unfortunately, reversing the decision is not the same as creating a legal obligation. A lesson has been learned that will stick with the communities involved. Going forward, Simmons said, she’ll be leery.

“I won’t trust them again,” she said. “It will be nice to have, but I won’t count on that money.”

Supporters of the agreement said it helped demonstrate to the communities one way the whole area could benefit. If it had been intended as a long-term plan, it would have been made that way.

Others say the contributions were initially offered to swing votes in support of the casino. Fotiadis disagrees.

“I know people in Murray. I know people in Woodburn,” said the councilman. “They can’t be bought. They can’t be bullied. Some of them are here proving that.”

The careful wording of Fotiadis’ motion made it clear the funds will not be used for political leverage, a sentiment echoed by others on the city council.

Said Gay, “They should vote however they want.”

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