Five city commission candidates answered questions on a number of topics Sunday afternoon during the League of Women Voters forum at the Manhattan Fire Department Headquarters.
They spoke about the commission’s next economic development focus, attracting companies that offer higher wages, and whether the city should be in the day care business.
Candidates Rich Jankovich, John Ball, Karen McCulloh, Bob Strawn and Usha Reddi answered questions from a media panel and from the audience during the forum, which also included a portion on school board members. Candidates Debbie Nuss and Daniel Hogan had indicated in advance they would be unable to attend due to medical issues.
Candidates spoke about what the city should focus on following the downtown redevelopment, which is mostly complete.
Strawn said the commission should look at bringing in companies that are “offshoots from the NBAF.” He believes that a third of the money from the half-cent sales tax should go to economic development (with the other two thirds going to debt relief and to infrastructure).
Reddi said the redevelopment has brought chain stores such as Hy-Vee, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy to Manhattan, but now the commission should put more emphasis on local businesses. She also said that as Fort Riley soldiers return, we should focus on giving them job opportunities and job training, especially in light of sequestration.
Jankovich, the lone incumbent in the field, pointed out that the downtown redevelopment is not completely finished, so the city should still focus on that. But he added that development along the McCall Road corridor is one of the offshoots of the downtown redevelopment, and said the city should continue to develop that area.
Ball said he wants to make sure that tax money from the downtown redevelopment is spent there.
He also said he’d like to see more emphasis on the NBAF and entities that complement it. “There are lower containment labs that will be built for that… so you have to build those labs.”
And McCulloh said we have to look very carefully at what we encourage and what incentives are provided. Parking downtown is an issue.
She said she disagreed with Ball’s contention that companies will be attracted by low taxes. “I think companies come here because they have a fit,” she said.
The candidates also weighed in on whether the city should require companies coming to Manhattan to pay employees a “living wage.”
Jankovich said he didn’t think it should. But he said the city should try to attract companies to Manhattan that do pay a living wage. He said the city should look for companies that want to invest in the community and aren’t just there for handouts.
Ball said he doesn’t believe in “artificially” setting wages.
“That’s part of the free enterprise system that has to function so that wages can actually go up as you need higher skill set personnel,” he said. But he agreed with Jankovich that the city should try to attract high-paying companies.
McCulloh said she doesn’t “see any reason to bring companies into the community that don’t pay a decent wage, don’t have benefits — health insurance, that kind of thing.” She said low-paying companies bring people with “a lot of needs, and often are a burden to your social service programs.”
Strawn said he generally doesn’t favor the concept of paying companies to come to Manhattan. He added that formal requirements for pay could be a deterrent for companies looking to locate here. He said the city should look to bring in companies that relate to NBAF.
Reddi said the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce already has a point system for incentives, which she said is good and bad.
She pointed out that setting a minimum pay requirement might actually have the effect of lowering the pay some companies would offer their employees.
“That might be setting a barrier to companies that might be offering higher wages,” she said.
City-backed day care
Following action at last week’s meeting in which the city approved a day care program at Sunset Zoo, candidates also answered the question “Should the city be in the day care business?”
McCulloh said she had not followed the issue enough to give a good answer, but said the city should make use of its public space, and she knows the city “definitely needs more day care.”
Strawn vehemently opposed the city’s decision to fund a zoo day care. “It’s a terrible decision, a pathetic decision,” he said. “Here we are, taking public money to provide day care for upper-class kids. We should use that to provide care for kids who can’t afford it, not for a bunch of rich kids who live on the west side of town.”
Reddi said she didn’t fully support the commission’s decision. She said the zoo day care might isolate some kids, not so much financially, but by “taking some of that enrichment away from other kids who could really do well by it.”
She said she doesn’t want to make day cares part of our city budget, but she knows the shortage and expense of such facilities is an issue for parents.
Jankovich, who voted for the proposal, said the commission intends for the day care to have a certain number of spots or scholarships for low-income children.
“Now, whether or not that will come true, I’m not sure,” he said. But he pointed out that there will be zero tax burden for the community.
Ball said he doesn’t think the city should be involved in day care. He is on the board of Sunset Zoo, and while he wants the zoo to offer educational programs and use the space it has built, he said, “day care is a step too far. … That’s just the wrong path to get down.”