Robinson turns his attention to improving Crestwood business climate

Second of two parts

By BURKE WASSON

During his first year in office, Crestwood Mayor Roy Robinson focused on restoring much of the city’s revenue and even received a little help from voters with the passage of Proposition S.

But Robinson is adamant that his first goal in the city for the rest of his time as mayor is to continue to improve its business community.

And on top of Robinson’s wishes for Crestwood businesses is to revive the Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood. Westfield Corp. officials are scheduled to attend the city’s July 25 Board of Aldermen meeting to inform the public and aldermen about their plans for the mall.

Although Robinson will admit that Crestwood might never be the same financially as it once was, he sees improvement of the mall as a way for the city to at least improve its current state.

“I’m anxious to hear what Westfield has to offer,” Robinson said. “Even though we have a lot of wonderful stores and businesses in the community, Westfield still is our main hub of the whole community. And people look at the way the mall goes as the way the people perceive the city. So we’ve got to make sure that we get some viable changes done to that center and maybe be creative. We may have to do things that people think is not great, but it’s creative.”

Westfield officials have discussed projects at the Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood in the past. These include expanding the mall’s movie theater, restructuring Dillard’s or moving the mall’s food court.

But recent months have seen talks to sell the mall to Somera Capital Management.

That deal since has died, and Robinson said that Westfield officials have told him the corporation does not have any plans at the moment to sell the mall.

“I do not think based on my contact that they will be selling,” Robinson said. “I’m not saying there won’t be … I just don’t think they’ll be selling. I think it was much too expensive for the people (Somera) that bought (Westfield) Northwest. Because I think it sold for $47 million, and this one (Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood) is valued at $109 million. I mean you’re talking about apples and oranges there. It’s almost twice or three times as much value. And it still has a lot of potential. It’s slowed down, and I don’t think Westfield, especially with their involvement with Sunset Hills and all that, have devoted as much time as they probably should have.

“But I think they realize that they’re not going to throw money away. If they ever do decide to sell it, it better have the work there to get their money in. And sometimes you have to invest money into these projects in order to get the money and the big portion of your investment out. I think it’s possible. And in the next month or so, we’ll be hearing something from them of what they’re going to start to do over there.”

To maximize the expected funds that would come to the city if it improved its business community, Robinson said Crestwood officials will closely monitor the collection of revenue from the Proposition S tax-rate increase.

Prop S, a tax-rate increase of 20 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, was approved in April by roughly 63 percent of voters.

The revenue will go toward paying off more than $3.5 million in debt and credit expenses accumulated by the city. When the city begins collecting the Proposition S revenue next year, Robinson said the collection and administration of funds for Prop S will be transparent and available for anyone to see.

The question, he says, is whether the funds would first be used to pay off the city’s $2 million in debt or $1.5 million in line-of-credit expenses.

“As I see it right at this moment, we will have an account established for this money,” Robinson said. “How that money is directed out of that account, to whether it be the $2 million debt that we owe or the line-of-credit debt at that time, we’re going to look at it and see which one saves us the most money. We pay a lot of interest, and I’m not sure which one we pay the most on. But all the money as it comes in or when it gets in will be paid to going towards paying off that debt.

“We’ll use it for nothing else. So it will be separated from the other funds. It’ll be a separate account. And based on which one saves the city the most money, we will direct the funding to that. And if it goes to pay off all the $2 million and keep the line of credit, that would be fine, too. We just want to make sure that we’re using it the best way we can to save the most for the city and the taxpayers.”

Aldermen initially discussed forming a citizen review committee to study the city’s capital-improvement sales-tax fund.

Talks later turned to possibly forming a group to monitor the city’s Prop S funds.

Robinson, however, said he does not believe that will be necessary because City Administrator Frank Myers will include those funds in his quarterly financial reports at Board of Aldermen meetings.

“All that information will be up front so people can see exactly where we are,” Robinson said. “We will provide that information to anyone. Whatever direction we go and how that money is used down to the last penny, I and you will both know where that money is going and how it’s been handled. There will be no reason for anybody else to sit down and try to figure it out because it will be as plain as possible. Like putting it on a sheet of paper and reading it off.

“That’s the way. It’s got to be simple. It’s got to be understandable. I’m not a mathematician and I’m not an accountant. But that’s the reason we have them, and I expect them to be able to get it to both me and the board and the citizens so they can read it and can understand it.”

Working with those board members is something that Robinson said he believes now can be accomplished — unlike the previous Board of Aldermen that was in place when he was elected in April 2005.

He also contends some previous city staff and administration members misled the board for several years.

Although four of the city’s current aldermen — half of the board — now are serving their first terms, Robinson said he is confident that they will not be misled or simply as gullible as he believes some previous aldermen have been.

“Not to brag, but my experience is a lot broader than a lot of these people,” Robinson said. “They don’t have the exposure, and I think that they’re a little naive. And I think that for what we’ve done in this city is what we all want to do is trust people and hope they’re telling us the truth. And I think what I’ve seen is people are just gullible. And then once you get into that, you don’t like to say: ‘Well, I made a mistake.’

“And instead of taking a hard line and correcting something that is not right, they tend to either ignore it or don’t want to make a decision on it. So basically, this board we have now, they’re asking a lot more questions. They’re getting definitely a lot more involved. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They should be. But they’re lucky because they’re getting a lot more information out of the staff and everyone than we were getting before. The previous board did not get that kind of information.

“I was quite amazed at some of the people and some of the stances that they took on things that, to me, was very obviously wrong. And, you know, like I said, I think it’s a little bit of being naive.

“Or you put your faith into people and things that these people are trying to accomplish and you believe them when, in fact, if you probably could have stepped back and taken a deeper look at the situation and really thought about it a little bit more, you definitely wouldn’t have fell prey to it. As far as I’m concerned, there are people who will crucify others because they don’t agree. I don’t do that. The only thing I will say is that I just believe that all the boards and all the previous mayors, including me, should do everything as best as they can do it and make sure that what they’re doing is for the right reasons.

“One thing that we see in this country is we have enough people that are out there serving for us. But they’ll tell you one thing when they’re running. And when they’re there, they’re doing something opposite for other reasons … But I think that what people expect is people who represent them do it for the right reasons — not for only self-interest or for the interest of a few. And that’s a hard line because, you know, I let my standards and my integrity guide what I do. And that doesn’t mean I’m right all the time. It means sometimes I can be misled also. Any of us can be pulled in. But I always think. Before I make a decision, I think it over first. When I was younger, I didn’t do that.”

Regarding a sexual-harassment complaint that was made against Robinson in April 2005 by a city employee, the mayor insists that the charge was “bogus” and said last week that he never took any sensitivity training because of the alleged incident— as reported last week.

“There was no reason to take it,” Robinson said. “And number two, I didn’t even know who the person was — still don’t know officially who the person was. I have my suspicions like everybody else. But it wasn’t anything that I was concerned with. I wasn’t even concerned about it, to tell you the truth, when it happened. I think the city attorney (Robert Golterman) might have been more cautious because he didn’t know me and he didn’t know what was going on. But like I said since I heard it, I said it’s baloney.

“And I’ll tell you what I told the city attorney. I said to him: ‘You tell that individual I’m here for three years, and if they’re uncomfortable with me being the mayor, then they should better find another job.’ That was my statement. And I don’t back away from that. Otherwise, the employees are running the place and they can use those kind of accusations, false or otherwise, to make sure they’re not removed when they’re not doing their job.”

He did say, however, he took corrective action in response to the complaint by moving city offices so that no female employees’ offices were adjacent to his. He said he also requested that his secretary, Helen Ingold, be present in his office whenever any other female employee was also there.

With the sexual-harassment complaint behind him and a new Board of Aldermen in place, Robinson said he sees the city’s government in a positive light and said he will work to keep that attitude intact.

“It’s good to see that this city is not having a lot of negatives,” he said. “And none of the papers have any negative information anymore. It’s more basically just telling us what’s going on.

“I think friendships and people’s desires to do it their way contributed to a lot of the disruption. And I know news media likes that. That’s somewhat news, and people should know if a city is not running (well). If they’re fighting every night together and they’re not getting anything accomplished, then the people should know this. And I think what this city found out is you can only do that stuff so long and the people get tired. They don’t mind a good debate on the facts.

“But they don’t want to see mudslinging and just a constant battle all the time. They want to see people act like adults. And that doesn’t mean you can’t smile and have a good time once in awhile, but they don’t want them sitting there just being disrespectful to each other. And we see that in other communities having some problems. It’s irritating. It tells you one thing — people need to grow up.

“The thing about it is I don’t mind people criticizing. All I ask is that they tell the truth. You know, I always say the truth shall set you free, and that’s also the CIA’s motto. But the people need to know what’s going on. And I wished it was possible to tell the people exactly on everything. But when you get in this office, you think you can say what you want and you can. But the problem is there’s a risk. And it’s not a risk to me. It’s a risk to the monies of the city. And I have to be ever so aware that I don’t do something or say something that will jeopardize the city. And that’s the only reason I don’t say what I’d really like to say.”

One contentious area that has been in place for the past few years has been a salary freeze for city employees, something that Robinson said is on his mind “constantly.” The mayor said he believes that with the passage of Prop S and the city’s strategy to improve its business community, pay raises for city employees could be possible in 2007 or 2008. But he’s not telling employees to hold their breath just yet.

“We’re going to look at that in our budget discussions for next year to see if there’s a possibility of any type of cost-of-living increase for the people,” he said. “But there’s no (certainty). And I think most of the employees that I’ve talked to know that that’s a … I hate to say this, but we’re just glad they still have a job. And now once we know they’ve got a job and we’re leveling out, now we’ve got to make sure they’re taken care of. And hopefully, we’ll be able to do something in that aspect. But we were too far down in the hole to even think about anything like that this year, and it may be 2008 before we can look at it. I don’t know. If some of these new projects start coming in and new business and all that, that all makes a difference, too.”

For the remainder of his time as mayor — whether that ends in 2008 or 2011 — Robinson said he would continue to try his best to restore the city’s finances and set a solid precedent for the next administration.

“I’m not looking for another step up or down or anything,” he said. “I’m just looking to make sure this community is thriving once again.”