Sitting at a corner table in Board Game Cafe as the large rectangular windows displayed rows of small businesses at his back, Dannen Merrill spoke of the importance of supporting them. For Merrill, the desire to serve and his experience in finances and accounting pushed him to run for a City Council seat this April.
The second youngest of seven children, Merrill said serving his community was imbued in him from a very young age. He and his four brothers are all Eagle Scouts, and the majority of his family has spent most of their careers in public service. For most of his life, this desire to serve has been for one community: Maryville.
The 29-year-old certified public accountant is homegrown. Merrill has spent nearly his entire life in the small town at the center of Nodaway County, receiving diplomas as both a Spoofhound and a Bearcat.
As a Spoofhound, Merrill was heavily involved in extracurriculars. The former state champion wrestler, band member and football player, among other things, was used to having his schedule filled with obligations. He would arrive early in the morning for band and would stay until the sun went down to attend practice for whatever sport was in season.
One of the more foundational experiences of his high school career was Missouri Boys State. The program gathers hundreds of high school juniors from schools all over Missouri and places them on the campus of the University of Central Missouri for a week during the summer.
The boys, essentially, run their own state and local governments and learn about Missouri’s system of government through hands-on experience. He has volunteered for a decade for Missouri Boys State; he is currently the treasurer for the program.
“That was another chance to instill in me the obligation to serve others and your community,” Merrill said of his time as an attendee at Missouri Boys State in 2009.
His tenure at Northwest could be characterized in much the same way as his high school career: full of obligations. During his time at Northwest, Merrill was a member of Phi Sigma Kappa, a board member for St. Jude’s Up ‘til Dawn and a member of Northwest’s Student Senate.
While in college, Merrill got firsthand experience with the City Council and local government with his position as city liaison for Student Senate, attending council meetings and reporting back to students on campus about what was going on.
“He showed up and he played the part, and I think that’s how I knew that he was really taking it seriously and had an interest in it,” said Renee Riedel, former mayor and member of the City Council during Merrill’s time as city liaison.
Riedel joked that Merrill was always the best dressed at meetings and would be in full business attire when she and her fellow council members would often wear jeans. Merrill’s passion for local government and serving in that way was clear even while he was in college, Riedel said.
Debrielle Patee-Merrill, Merrill's younger sister who now serves as Student Senate's vice president and a student ambassador, saw her older brother's involvement in so many things at Northwest as a “guiding light for her.” Patee-Merrill spent much of her high school career intent on having the “DI experience” at a large college, but Merrill gave her some words of wisdom that pushed her to become a Bearcat.
“At those massive schools, you will be a minnow trying to survive in the ocean. But at Northwest, you can be a shark in Colden Pond.” Patee-Merrill said, recalling her brother’s advice.
“I remember thinking (at the time) that was the stupidest thing he’s ever said,” Patee-Merrill said. “And now I say that on just about every tour I give.”
After Merrill’s time as a “shark in Colden Pond,” he moved away to work at the large accounting firm BKD, LLP in Kansas City, Missouri, where he became certified as a CPA.
He served as part-owner and operator of the local bar The Outback during his stint at BKD. Coming back around Christmastime in 2017, Merrill went to the local accounting firm formerly known as Marsh, Espey & Riggs PC - CPAs to ask a question about payroll for the bar. Through the course of the conversation, then-partner Jerry Riggs told Merrill of his desire to retire and was looking for a young CPA to take over for him. Merrill started a few months later at the firm and officially bought Riggs out in 2019, making the firm Marsh, Espey & Merrill PC - CPAs.
“That was really special for all of us,” Patee-Merrill said. “We were really excited.”
Shortly after returning to his hometown, Merrill wanted to jump headfirst into local politics. He applied for a vacant council seat in 2018 that ultimately went to Councilman Tye Parsons.
For Merrill, the decision to run for one of the two open seats in the upcoming election is not borne out of the pandemic.
“Had coronavirus never happened, as is demonstrated with my prior interest, I would still be interested in being on City Council,” Merrill said.
Merrill was encouraged by outgoing councilmen Jason McDowell and Matt Johnson to run for one of the vacant positions, he said. He ultimately made his decision in the fall to throw his hat in the ring.
There’s no axe to grind with the current council, Merrill said; he thinks overall the group is doing a good job. He believes he could help, especially with finances and budgeting.
Merrill sees a need on the council for someone with financial expertise. As a small business owner himself and an accountant for other small businesses in Maryville, he said he can fill that need. He also sees an opportunity to do more.
Merrill said the current council is small business-friendly but that it could make those businesses a larger priority. Many businesses are hurting as a result of COVID-19, and Merrill said there is a way for local government to be doing more to help them.
“What I’ve seen as of late and what I want to continue to push is that the city is budgeting funds for tourism, for downtown revitalization,” Merrill said as he gestured to the Board Game Cafe and the brick buildings surrounding him.
The CPA council candidate is not interested in the “sexy” side of local politics. He’s more interested in what he said many consider mundane, looking over budgets and making financial decisions with a trained eye.
“Up until this year with the mask mandate and all that stuff, you could probably have asked 60% of the citizens, ‘Who was on the City Council?’ and they probably could have named half of them,” Merrill said.
Water quality issues and mask mandates vaulted the City Council to new heights of prominence during the pandemic rarely seen before in the area. Merrill said the city is taking the right steps toward fixing the water issue, but that budget concerns will pop up soon over the cost of that endeavor. He believes he can aid in those budget endeavors if elected to the City Council.
As far as the mask mandate, Merrill, if elected, would not vote to extend the mandate past its April 6 expiration date. Merrill supported the mandate at certain points but said he doesn’t believe it will be necessary by the time new council members are elected.
“I think we are on the downhill side of this,” Merrill said. “I think enough people are getting vaccinated that we are really past it.”
The elections come at the busiest time of the year for an accountant: tax season. Merrill chuckled as he said he was used to being “overextended,” but he’s not worried. He’s spent much of his life balancing obligations and timelines, and if elected to City Council, the added commitment will not be anything new.
The sky was getting darker as Merrill gathered his things to exit the quiet cafe nestled on Fourth and Main. He was going back to the office to do some “homework,” he said.
“There are 24 hours in the day, might as well use them,” Merrill said.