COLUMBIA — A ghost from Columbia’s past lingers on the city’s law books, and its accounting books.
John C. Conley, a prominent 19th century Boone County resident, left money in his will to help the needy in Columbia, then put the city in charge of administering it.
The legacy became the Conley Poor Fund and has been used to assist low-income Columbia residents for more than 80 years.
Now, under a plan to reorganize Columbia’s boards and commissions, the future of the fund as an ongoing legacy is unclear.
When Conley died in 1896, he left behind an estate that a local newspaper identified as "probably the largest of any man who ever died in this county."
In the same obituary, the Columbia Missouri Herald estimated Conley’s fortune at $300,000. In today's dollars, that comes to at least $6 million.
Another newspaper, the Columbia Missouri Statesman, put his fortune at half a million dollars.
Conley had deep pockets. And he was no Scrooge, though he did apparently love making money. His "chief happiness was in the accumulation of wealth," according to the Herald.
But the newspaper noted that he "dressed simply" and "spent for personal comforts very little. ... He liked to be known as John C. Conley, farmer and trader."
After working as a teacher and studying mathematics in college, Conley went into the dry-goods business with his brother, Sanford. The historic Conley House at MU was Sanford Conley's family home.
Though John Conley became rich, he "was always on the side of the weak," according to the Herald. “To the persistent beggar he turned a deaf ear, but he heard many calls of real distress and answered them.”
Most of Conley’s fortune was dispersed to his extended family; he never married or had children. But he saved a chunk — $20,000, or about half a million in today’s dollars — for those his will described as "the deserving poor."
The language of the will became a city ordinance, and the Conley Poor Fund remains as part of the city code to this day — but perhaps not for much longer, at least not in its current structure.
In his recent report on Columbia's boards and commissions, City Manager Mike Matthes recommended that the city drop the ordinance and turn the fund over to a foundation or a city department.
Until about a year ago, the fund’s investments were overseen by a trustee approved by the Boone County Circuit Court. Money was given to the city to disperse, after approval from a board made up of City Council members.
First National Bank and Trust, now Landmark Bank, filled the trusteeship most recently, until it filed a "friendly lawsuit" to turn the fund over to the city. The administrative fees it charged had begun to eat into the fund’s principal, City Counselor Fred Boeckmann said.
At the moment, the fund’s balance — Matthes estimated it at $142,000 — sits in an account with the city’s general investment pool, said Columbia Finance Director John Blattel.
For at least the past 50 years, money from the fund has gone to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. The department spends the money on medical assistance for low-income families, often filling gaps in health insurance and Medicaid coverage or helping those without any insurance, said Steve Hollis, manager of the Division of Human Services.
If low-income applicants meet the requirements of the department’s general eligibility form, Health and Human Services will assist with purchasing eyeglasses or medical supplies and equipment, such as walkers, bedside commodes or diabetic supplies.
Hollis said those who apply for and receive assistance from the Conley Poor Fund don’t know where the money comes from. Assistance programs have multiple funding sources that are lumped together.
Under the plan Matthes submitted to the City Council, the Conley fund’s remaining $142,000 could go either to the Department of Public Health and Human Services as a line item in its budget, or to the Community Foundation of Central Missouri to establish a new trust.
The Community Foundation is a nonprofit organization established with startup money from the city in 2010 as a "community savings account," according to its website.
Mayor Bob McDavid suggested at last week's City Council meeting that an endowment through the Community Foundation could be "parallel" to the Conley Poor Fund.
Boeckmann said creating a trust with the Community Foundation would require an agreement between the city and the foundation about the fund's administration. At the direction of the council, Matthes agreed to approach the Community Foundation to discuss the terms of such an agreement.
If the city is able to reach an agreement with the foundation that allows for financial sustainability, the fund could function much as it does today.
"The trust as we know it would still be used for the same services," Hollis said. "As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been planning this for years."
One surviving descendant of John C. Conley said he trusts the council to make the right decision about the fund.
Former District Judge Frank Conley, the great-grandnephew of John C. Conley, said he is aware of the fund but doesn’t know its details nor does he have a strong preference as to the ultimate decision.
"But I would hate to think that we would use it in the present and not use it wisely," he said.
"The original intent was to aid the poor, and that’s my only preference."