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Category Archives: Ozarks

A deed can be ambiguous, even when its words are clear


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Yogi Berra, supposedly.

Judge Perigo did something similar in a boundary dispute case,  McLallen v. Tillman, arising on the Elk River in McDonald County, which occupies the southwest corner of Missouri. Like all streams in the Ozarks, the Elk River meanders through its floodplain, splitting and recombining, with seasonal floods shifting the arrangement of channels.

Several deeds said that the boundary of the property was a part of a quarter-section “lying North and West of Elk River.” The trial judge, taking the whole fork,  said that these deeds were not ambiguous, sustaining a motion for summary judgment.

The McLallens weren’t happy, because they thought that the eight acres lying between the north and south fork of the Elk River was theirs. Their neighbors claimed the same land. The McLallens appealed, claiming that the deed may be clear enough on its face, but that this language ignored the reality about the Elk River.

At that point, the Elk River splits into two channels, one carrying more water than the other. In 1984, at the time of one conveyance, the southern channel carried the most water. Sometime in the 1990s, the northern channel began to carry the most water. It’s safe to guess that one of the channels may even go dry during droughts.

The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment, sending the case back for a trial. The basis of the reversal is that the appeals court thought McLallen’s deed, while plain on its face, had a latent ambiguity, one that could be discerned from facts outside the words of the deed. The trial court should have heard evidence about which fork of the Elk River constituted its northern boundary, to determine which of two plausible interpretations of the deed would prevail.

 

 

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Skills gap leaves Missouri manufacturing jobs unfilled


Manufacturing in the United States and the export of manufactured products from the United States is growing. If jobs could be filled, production and exports could rise. Nobody is opposed to products being manufactured in the US for domestic use and for export.

According to an article in St. Louis Today, citing a study by the Manufacturing Institute, with results confirmed by St. Louis area businesses, thousands of manufacturing jobs are going unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants. And technical colleges have additional capacity to provide the needed training.

After World War II, manufacturers of shoes, clothing, furniture and other products moved into the small towns and cities of the Ozarks, taking advantage of a surplus of mostly non-union, low-skilled workers. Manufacturers later arranged for their products to be made in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin American, then in Asia, seeking lower labor costs and less environmental and worker-safety regulation. Most towns in the Ozarks have vacant manufacturing facilities, even though transportation systems and location with respect to markets have never been better.

Universities and colleges are everywhere, offering all kinds of courses in residence programs and at satellite campuses, with opportunities for online education for students of all ages.

Where are the students who want to learn practical mathematics and how to operate computer-controlled design and manufacturing equipment? Some of them are in the military services. Others are working in unskilled jobs, never having become aware of their own potential to learn and earn. Others are in the gray-collar world of retail and services, where hours are long and wages and benefits skimpy.

While the St. Louis Today article blames the shortage of trainees for modern manufacturing jobs on the widespread acceptance of the value of a college education–as though the college credential had value even without skills to go with it–I’d place part of the lack of interest in manufacturing on the bad experience with manufacturing in the Ozarks. In the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, the manufacturing workers in the Ozarks experienced low wages and benefits, workplace injuries, frequent layoffs, and union-busting, ending with their abandonment (I am not forgetting that these low-wage jobs were better than no jobs and sometimes were the best jobs ever available in some communities for many people).

Manufacturers locating plants in the Ozarks asked poor communities for subsidies in the form of property tax abatement and general-obligation bond issues to for construction of facilities. Some plants polluted streams or left toxic wastes.

The manufacturing of today is much different. It’s cleaner and safer. Workers with training and skills can earn as much or more than many people who have college degrees and obtain as much or more job security. Here’s hoping that Missouri’s technical schools will be seen as the gateways to the good life, rather than an undesirable alternative to college.

St. Louis firm handles $662 collection case in West Plains, loses there and again on appeal. Why?


As we all know by now, you can often follow the money to the answer. Sometimes the trail is faint.

A one-car accident in Howell County, which sits on Missouri’s border with Arkansas about halfway across southern Missouri, resulted in a 911 call and the summoning of the Brandsville Fire Protection District (FPD) and the Missouri Highway Patrol and an ambulance. FPD personnel arrived at the scene and assisted with first aid and loading Jerry and Nina Phillips into ambulances.

FPD personnel remained at the scene for a couple of hours, providing traffic control while the wrecker loaded the Phillips’ car.

The FPD sued the Phillipses for an unpaid bill of $662. The bill was issued under the FPD’s ordinance allowing it to charge non-residents of the FPD for services. These charges are authorized by Missouri statute. When the bill wasn’t paid Read the rest of this entry

Missouri governor signs HB1103, giving courts power to order maintenance of “private roads”


The Missouri General Assembly enacted HB 1103 in the past 2012 regular session, which explicitly grants circuit court judges the authority to impose financial responsibility for maintenance of certain “private roads” onto parcels of real estate that benefit from these roads. Governor Nixon signed the bill into law on July 12, 2012.

There are many problems with rural roads in Missouri. Simple questions–such as determining who owns the road, whether it is a subject to property taxes, who has the right to use it, and who is obligated to pay for its maintenance–are often impossible to answer.

HB 1103′s provisions regarding private road maintenance change section 228.368 RSMo and add three new sections to Chapter 228 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. This legislation is an attempt to solve the problem of nobody stepping forward to pay for road maintenance in situations in which no provision was made when the road was created. But its definition of “private road” greatly limits its applicability.

According to the new section 228.341, a “private road” means “any private road established under this chapter or any easement of access, regardless of who created, which provides a means of ingress and egress by motor vehicle for any owner or owners of residences from such homes to a public road. A public road does not include any road owned by the United States or any agency or instrumentality thereof, or the state of Missouri, or any county, municipality, political subdivision, special district, instrumentality, or agency of the state of Missouri.” Got that?

Read the rest of this entry

Great food in an unexpected location: Sparta’s Mossy River Pie Hole


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I felt that the words above the window were speaking directly to me.

I couldn’t help but pull over while I was on one of my noontime foraging expeditions on the east side of Ozark, Missouri.

Set up under a shade tree at the corner of Missouri highways 14 and 125 in Sparta, about eight miles east of the Ozark WalMart and US 65, Gjetta Moss has just started her second month serving delicious lunches and suppers.

I keep coming back for more. Today I had lemonade from just-squeezed lemons, which paired perfectly with a BLT and peppery coleslaw.

Despite a couple of college degrees and years of restaurant experience, Gjetta hasn’t found the job she needs. She’s trying the time-honored bootstrap method of making her way in the world, keeping the overhead low and the quality of the food as high as she can make it, served with a big smile.Image

Non-compete can be enforceable without geographic limit


The basic rule is that a non-compete covenant with an employee will not be enforced unless it is reasonable in duration and with respect to the geographic area it applies to. Otherwise, employees would be trapped in jobs, because they wouldn’t be able to work if they left the employer.

But a St. Louis judge’s order was reversed by the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District in Whelan Security Co. v. Kennebrew, even though the non-compete covenant did not define the geographic area where the former employee was prohibited from competing with his former employer.

The trial judge had granted summary judgment in the employee’s favor, after having reviewed the employment contract that prohibited Kennebrew from soliciting business from Whelan’s customers or going to work for Whelan’s competitors for 12 months after leaving Whelan. Within four months after separating from Whelan, Kennebrew successfully went after one of Whelan’s customers. The trial court concluded that Kennebrew’s employment agreement was invalid, because it was “overbroad” and “not reasonable as to time and space.”

The appellate court applied a different rule of law, stating:

a restrictive covenant without geographic limitations is not per se unreasonable if the prohibition is against the solicitation of the employer’s clients and customers.

The geographic scope of Kennebrew’s contract was essentially defined by the location of Whelan’s customers.

Non-compete agreements are recognized and limited by statute in Missouri. The statute, section 431.202 RSMo,  creates a presumption that a one-year duration is reasonable, but allows an employer to prove that a longer period might be appropriate under the circumstances.

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Invest now in vacation property!


In preparing for a short talk about how to convey various kinds of vacation real estate, I arrived at the unbrilliant conclusion that people make decisions to buy vacation real estate (RV lots, lake houses, timeshares) based on what they think they want at the time of purchase, with some attention, but not enough attention, to the future. A short version of my presentation is posted here.

Many decisions to purchase vacation property are made when buyers are in a state of vacation bliss, a kind of wistfulness, that makes them less critical than when they’re on their home turf. They hope the vacation property will be a place of togetherness for family and close friends, where memories are created. Perhaps it will become a retirement home, where the grandchildren will want to visit. The sales techniques for vacation property are addressed squarely at those sentiments.

Many of those good things do happen. But vacation properties have the same drawback as all real estate investments: real estate is immobile. If you must to sell it quickly, the price must be low. You probably can’t sell it yourself, because you’re not there.

Ownership of most objects becomes undesirable. Our family situations change. Rising fortunes suggest that we should upgrade. Declining fortunes require that we sell. Seclusion that initially provided peace now brings feelings of loneliness. Or seclusion is ruined by the tasteless vacation home just built next door. The only time available to be at the vacation property is consumed with mowing and repairs.

Now is a great time to buy, because many owners need to sell. Get some advice about your purchase from people who aren’t going to make a commission if the sale goes through, whom you can confide in about your needs.

The advisors you need when considering purchasing vacation property should be able to advise you on such topics as:

  • the history of the project (subdivision, resort, condominium), including the reputation of its developer
  • subdivision restrictions and plats
  • maintenance fees
  • responsibility for road maintenance
  • recreational amenities
  • water and sewer systems
  • lake or river access
  • police and fire protection
  • homeowner association status and activities
  • distance to medical facilities
  • resale opportunities
  • nearby employment opportunities

The information that you need probably isn’t available from just one person. Take your time in making a decision. Don’t sign anything while you’re in the wistful state.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering intentional flooding: why are we in this mess?

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The random aspect of tornado damage is one thing. But people have put themselves in the paths of floodwaters. Now the Missouri River’s flood is moving downstream. Who knows what it will do to the Mississippi?

But can you blame people for building homes and businesses in the floodplains? We spent billions to control our rivers and create an economy that depends on our controlling them.

Have we lost the ability to manage our environment, or we were just kidding ourselves that our engineering ability (incorporating politically-mandated compromises) would be effective?

I ponder these things in a longish essay: Unnatural disasters: flooding from managed rivers and what to do. Of course, I don’t know what to do. Maybe you have an idea.

Please read and comment.

Can a city’s utility charges be a tax? It’s a tough case to prove.

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The City of Hermann provides water, sewer, natural gas, electricity and trash pickup to its residents, allowing them no choice of providers. When the City jacked up the rates and transferred the “profits” to other City accounts, some residents resented the City’s flexing of its monopoly power. They sued, claiming that the City’s governing board had sidestepped Missouri’s constitutional requirement (Article X, sections 16- 24, known as the Hancock Amendment) that tax increases be approved by voters. The court had to decide whether a utility rate increase was a disguised tax.

Here’s an overview of the Missouri Supreme Court’s 26-page opinion in Arbor Investtment Company LLC v. City of Hermann, released May 31, 2011, in which the court determined that the  City of Hermann’s utility fees were not taxes.

The Five (or Six or Seven) Factors

The Missouri Supreme Court identified five factors in the 1991 case Keller v. Marion County Ambulance District which may be applied to distinguish user fees (not requiring a vote of the people) from a tax (which requires a vote). These factors, the court pointed out, are not exhaustive, but provide a framework for analysis:

  1. When is the fee paid?
  2. Who pays the fee?
  3. Is the amount of the fee affected by the level of the service that it is for?
  4. Is the fee for a good or a service?
  5. Is the good or service one that has been historically provided by the government?

The City of Hermann’s utility charges are paid in response to monthly billing, after the services have been metered. This resembles a user charge, rather than a tax that is paid annually. Of course, it also resembles a sales tax that is paid upon a sale.

The City’s utility charges are assessed only against utility customers, unlike some kinds of taxes, which are charged without reference to who is using government services. For example, sales taxes are charged to non-resident and residents alike.

The amount of the City’s utility charges, at least above minimums and flat charges, is related directly to use, other than for Hermann’s “communications fee,” which is used to support the 911 network.

The City’s utility charges fees are imposed for goods or services, rather than being a general tax to be used however the City government chooses. This factor was not at issue in this challenge, though the plaintiffs claimed that the amount of the fees were in excess of the reasonable capital and operating costs incurred in providing the services.

The Supreme Court found the fifth factor in favor of a finding of a tax, though the City of Hermann has a long history of providing these services in Hermann. The court indicated that the City’s prohibition of any other provider offering these goods and services supports a finding that the utility charges are a tax, without explaining why, other than to state that the lack of alternatives was a part (a sixth factor?) of the analysis. Even so, a finding that the utility charges resembled a tax on this point was not enough to overcome the opposite findings on the other factors.

Borrowing from its opinion in Beatty v. Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, the court looked at a sixth factor, whether the payment was enforceable by imposition of a lien on the user’s property or merely by disconnection or discontinuance of the service. Without taking judicial notice of the fact that many if not most private and municipal utilities have the right to impose liens for non-payment of utility charges–in addition to disconnection– the court considered that a tax, such as a property tax, is secured by a lien, while utility providers have the right to disconnect the services to enforce payment.

The court upheld the City of Hermann’s utility rates, stating, “There simply has been no showing that the amount charged is so excessive as to not constitute the provision of a service or good in return for the amount paid.”

Municipal rates are unregulated, but does this lead to excessive rate levels?

We should be concerned with the quality of the facilities for providing our water supply, treatment and management of wastewater and stormwater, and delivery of electricity and telecommunications services. The infrastructure for these essential things was constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Repairing, replacing and upgrading them is enormously expensive and in many cases has been deferred.

But private and governmental providers face stiff resistance in raising revenues to confront these challenges. For many private providers, utility commissions determine the extent to which rate increases are allowed. For other providers, such as cooperatives, homeowner associations and local governments, rate increases are within the discretion of elected officials, who have wide discretion and motivations that may extend beyond the provision of utility services.

In my experience, local governments, looking at water and sewer rates, generally look around to neighboring communities and communities of the same size elsewhere in the state, hoping to stay somewhere below the top. While this strategy may be effective for helping elected officials to remain in office, it may not produce sufficient revenue for maintaining utility systems.

 

The Corps of Engineers can only release water, not solve problems

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As a lawyer, I first encountered the economic ruin and heartache from controlled discharge from a Corps’ reservoir about 25 years ago. The Corps had opened the gates at the Keystone reservoir west of Tulsa, filling the entire floodplain from Mannford, through Sand Springs and Tulsa. My client packaged fresh salads in a building on the edge of the floodplain that was not known to have ever flooded.

The Small Business Administration offered disaster loans to businesses, and my client’s only hope for survival was to accept a loan.

Unfortunately, the six-month interruption of my client’s business resulted in a loss of market share and employees. The SBA loan and insurance didn’t cover nearly all the losses. There was no revenue to cover the regular bills due in the weeks after the flood. The business had been marginally profitable, only because it had little debt. The SBA loan required the owner to sign a personal guarantee. The eventual result of the SBA loan was that my client became bankrupt (at age 70), since the business couldn’t generate enough money to service the debt and pay its other expenses.

I could find no legal basis for challenging the Corps’ management of the Keystone dam and the Arkansas River basin. The Corps operates under broad statutory authority that has many competing goals, the least of which seems to be protecting homes and businesses built in floodplains below the dams.

The Corps has no control over rainfall. In responding to rainfall, or lack of it, the Corps must respond to those who have statutory claims on impounded water for drinking, power generation, irrigation, recreation, and maintenance of the depth of water in navigation channels. The Corps is constrained by the design of its dams and the storage capacity of its reservoirs. To meet all its goals, the Corps has only one tool: controlling the rate of release of water.

Even if the Corps didn’t have governmental immunity from liability for many of its actions, persuading a judge or jury that the Corps made bad decisions would be an enormously expensive and difficult task.

The lesson is that the economic benefits and protection provided by federal and state projects are extremely uneven in application. We should make decisions based on our own situations.

If you’re a beneficiary of a specific federal program, you can probably count on whatever protection that offers, but only for now. If we expect federal, state and local governments to protect us from weather, we end up in the situation we’re already in.

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