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Budget questions - Karen McCulloh

By Corene Brisendine

What is your view of the property tax levy: too high, about right or too low? If too high, how would you reduce it?

Taxes are always a hot topic.  The important question is whether people feel they are getting good services in return.  Property and sales taxes are both regressive taxes in that their impact is heavier on the poor than the rich.  With state proposed cuts on income taxes we are going to see more and more pressure on property taxes to pay for services which are required of local government.  It is important to remember it is not just city but also school and county taxes which make up the tax bill.  Another serious issue in the Manhattan scheme of taxation is that while the total evaluation of the county is about $4 billion, $1.4 billion of that is exempt from paying property taxes.  Services provided by the city such as police, fire, roads, water treatment, and parks, to name but a few, should be done as efficiently and frugally as possible.  Reducing the mill levy is a positive goal but not if it has repercussions on citizens’ safety and quality of life.  We have done comparative studies on the RCPD and other city police departments in comparable locations in Kansas and find that we come out lowest per capita.  While it is very easy, to campaign saying  we should cut taxes, in reality, because so many costs are primarily personnel, unless we wish to have fewer police or firefighters, this is difficult to deliver.  Having said this, I would add I kept county personnel numbers flat during my four years as a Riley County Commissioner (except for staff added when the county took over the Health Department) and I would look for efficiencies at every level as a city commissioner.

Which Social Service Agencies should the city be responsible for funding, at least in part?

The city support for social services and the arts is imperative.  First, we are far too caring and compassionate community to let people slip through the social safety net.  We often speak of the expense of supporting social services without looking at the expense of loosing them.  The Topeka correctional facility estimates that it cost $85/day to house an inmate and $300/day to house an inmate with mental problems.  This is $75,000 more a year!!  About 18% of our inmates have mental problems, but we must find funding for Pawnee Mental Health, the Crisis Center or the Emergency Shelter, to name a few, to deal with these individuals and perhaps assist them before they become a cost to our local budgets.  One preventative dollar has been shown to save nine in later costs.  Consider the dollars saved by enabling people to stay in their homes by providing Meals on Wheels for just pennies a day. We could never assist all the people that Manhattan social services do without the many, many volunteers and private donations but we need the public dollars also to provide the support for staff and management to organize this effort. It is in our self-interest to support groups who deal with people in need at a level where perhaps their problems are solvable and we can get them back on track to being productive citizens.

Does the city need to reduce its debt? If so, how?

The city debt is significant and we need to pay close attention to the way we manage it.  Most of the debt has dedicated sources of revenue which will help us pay it down.  The recreational additions to the pools and zoo, for example, have a dedicated sales tax income stream, as does the debt attached to specials.  In general these debts should not be considered worrisome, but Junction City did get into problems with their specials.  I think it is time to step back, take a deep breath and do some significant long range planning before entering into any more debt.  Manhattan is planning to reexamine the comprehensive land use plan.  The county did this during my tenure as commissioner in a very inclusive, citizen-driven manner using a number of meetings where input was gathered through electronic voting.  This method of very civil discourse led to people having their say without shouting down or ignoring opposing views.  It quickly became obvious in these meetings that the majority of attendees were on the same page and wanted the same outcome—planned development which protected agricultural land and values. 

What guidelines would you follow to determine how to spend the city’s 65 percent portion of the half-cent sales tax that is dedicated to economic development and infrastructure?

The sales tax question as defined by the present commission left the 65% infrastructure rather vaguely outlined.  Rather than offer a rigid definition at this point, I think we need to take a very long and hard look at companies asking for benefits to locate here.  In the past, we have been a bit too quick to offer enticements without asking what this business can do for us.  I wish the several million we gave to Mercy Hospital, for example, had been tied to their keeping a small inpatient mental health unit.   The use of infrastructure monies as an economic developmental tool is a good idea in that it leaves the city with a tangible investment should the company not succeed.  I think the Chamber of Commerce has done an excellent job as our agent and a filter for prospective businesses but the commission should look long and hard at these applicants.  I also think that this infrastructure income should also be available to assist local business looking at expansion.

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