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City commission candidates answer questions on reducing the levy, funding, debt

By Corene Brisendine

In preparation for the city commission elections, the Mercury asked each candidate to address several questions on various issues facing the city. The questions are designed to help voters understand each candidate’s position. This edition addresses budget issues. Here are the candidates’ responses.



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

John Ball: The property tax levy is too high. I will work with agencies like the state, county commission, law board, school board, and library board to help lower taxes by balancing revenues with costs and paying off debt. I’ll work with the other city commissioners to focus the city on core requirements, eliminate unnecessary spending, stop borrowing money, find efficiencies between city and county government, and eliminate waste. All projects that consume tax money must pass a core function and essential requirement test. Then, these projects must meet the established support or service requirement in the most cost effective manner.

Daniel Hogan: Too high. Cut spending and consolidate, or eliminate spending projects where possible.

Rich Jankovich: The mil levy is too high in an all in perspective. The issue is to look for savings from duplication of services with our partners, and look for purchasing savings with our regional partners.

Karen McCulloh: Services provided by the city 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. I would look for efficiencies at every level as a city commissioner.

Debbie Nuss: The current property tax levy is about right as it has allowed the city to meet its adopted budget.

Usha Reddi: I want to keep taxes as low as possible while still preserving the programs most citizens believe are vital to the community. We need to look for efficiencies in our programs and evaluate them annually. We can set benchmarks and goals for each year; if these are not met, we can have a discussion about how effective a program is and if taxpayer money should be used of it.

Bob Strawn: The property tax levy is unacceptably high. It should be a priority to look for ways to lower the levy over time, or it will soon become an economic development negative and a hardship on citizens, particularly those on fixed incomes.




2. Which social service agencies should the city be responsible for funding, at least in part?


Ball: I would consider the following five social service agencies for tax support: Manhattan Emergency Shelter, The Crisis Center, Sunflower CASA Project, Boys and Girls Club, and Homecare and Hospice.

Hogan: The best way to determine this is to talk to the people who would know best, our police officers. Police Officers are going to have outstanding input on what programs should be kept because they have the knowledge of issues at street level. There are some programs that are redundant, or only serve a specific segment of the population as opposed to the entire population. Supported services need to benefit the entire city.

Jankovich: The services funded from the general fund are tied to children, legal assistance, families in need, etc. These have a correlation to crime prevention as they allow better opportunities for learning, after school, child protection, family protections, etc. All of these impact our law enforcement costs.

McCulloh: We must find funding for Pawnee Mental Health, the Crisis Center or the Emergency Shelter. 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.

Nuss: The current process followed by the Social Services Advisory Board to recommend to the city commission which social service agencies should be funded has worked well.

Reddi: We need to hold each agency accountable and prioritize how money is allotted. Add criteria to SSAB that ask if the agency is providing basic human needs and preventive measures so citizens can be productive in society.

Strawn: The current SSAB budget is appropriate. I strongly oppose any effort toward a mandatory SSAB mill levy.




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


Ball: Yes. The first step in debt reduction is to stop borrowing. The city commission must pledge to not borrow any more money until at least an equivalent amount of debt is retired. Then we can use the half-cent sales tax funds, available special/designated taxes, and revenue saved from the general fund to accelerate debt payment.

Hogan: Yes. Cut and prioritize spending, and manage the projects more efficiently. Lower the debt ceiling. Raising the debt ceiling only encourages more spending and debt growth.

Jankovich: Yes. As we review potential projects we should always be mindful of the sources of revenue that will repay the debt issue and keep that as tax impact as neutral as possible. We also should apply excess cash flows to the Star Bonds and TIF Bonds to accelerate the repayment.

McCulloh: The city debt is significant, and we need to pay close attention to the way we manage it. 

It is time to step back, take a deep breath, and do some significant long range planning before entering into any more debt.

Nuss: The passage of the half-cent sales tax guarantees that 35 percent of the city’s portion will go to debt reduction.

Reddi: Yes, the city does need to reduce its debt, but decreasing the debt at all costs may put us risk of losing potential long-term revenue, and meeting the needs of the citizens of Manhattan. If we forego incremental growth, we may pay more in the long term.

Strawn: Debt reduction should be a priority. This can be accomplished over time by sound tax policy and by avoiding further commitments, which are based on increasing the city’s debt.

I would, however, strongly oppose any effort toward mandatory debt reduction schemes that somehow nullify the authority of the city commission.


Half-cent sales tax


4. 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?

Ball: I would use the sales tax funds to help fund smaller infrastructure projects that would enhance quality of life and set conditions for future planned growth. Some funds would be set aside to help fund costs that may be associated with good economic development opportunities. Companies should not be paid to relocate here, but should be attracted here because of low taxes and the exceptional quality of life offered here in Manhattan.

Hogan: I would ask the following questions: Does it benefit the entire city of Manhattan? What does it cost the city? Is this is a top priority, or can it be back listed until later?

Jankovich: The use for infrastructure needs to be tied to economic development.

We should evaluate the types of businesses that have a good fit in the community and work to attract those businesses identified. Also, identify projects that are needed, and evaluate their importance to economic development.

McCulloh: We need to take a long and hard look at companies asking for benefits to relocate here. The infrastructure income should also be available to assist local business looking at expansion.

Nuss: The city commission should appoint a committee to review the current economic development application and guidelines to determine whether they meet the commission’s needs when asked to approve a funding request, establish criteria to determine what types of infrastructure should be funded, and determine whether there should be a certain percentage set aside for infrastructure versus economic development.

Reddi: We need to have adequate roads, bridges, water supply and sewers in place to sustain growth and development.

My first preference would be to encourage local businesses to build, develop and create jobs for residents of Manhattan.

Strawn: This sales tax can be used to effectively lower property taxes. It will be a decision based on budgetary needs at the time, but hopefully about half could be used for infrastructure needs thus lowering property tax requirements.

I would resist pressures to use it all for that purpose as a fund should be generated for ecodevo opportunities that spin off of NBAF and other avenues.

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