Riley County commissioners, staff and state legislators shared breakfast Thursday morning in the commission chambers to discuss a wide range of matters concerning their constituents.
The breakfast was organized by county counselor Clancy Holeman and hosted Sen. Tom Hawk along with representatives Sydney Carlin and Tom Phillips.
The roundtable discussion covered many topics, particularly mental and general health issues, infrastructure, revenue hurdles and flood insurance.
Hawk said collaborations like this are among the reasons he believes Riley County is a leader in the state and an example of how such problems can be tackled.
“We should be proud of what’s going on here in Riley County,” he said. “Not only from our economic perspective, but from our leadership perspective. In this county, our school district, our city commission, and you all — our county commission — work together to try and resolve issues.”
Many of the challenges discussed all had a root problem: funding — or lack thereof — from the state level.
“With no revenues coming in and facing budget cuts, the idea of talking about new programs is just an exercise,” Phillips said. “It’s going to be tough. One low-hanging fruit to me is to change this policy that LLCs (and entities like them) are paying no state income taxes.
“The idea was sold that (LLCs not paying taxes) was going to create jobs, that it was going to be an adrenaline shot to the economy. But tell me, how many new LLCs have been formed? How many new employees have been created?
If we’re going to make polices, they need to be based on factual information and not hope.
“Hope is not a strategy in my world.”
Commission Chairman Bob Boyd touched on earlier comments by Phillips about infrastructure.
“Tom, I want to thank you very, very much for broaching the subject of infrastructure — specifically highways,” he said. “I think that’s lost in our legislative body. We’re just not thinking where Kansas is going to be in five, 10, 15 years with our infrastructure. We are in big trouble. Just look at our grid system and our highway system. We have no funding for it, so I’m happy you’re broaching that subject.”
Boyd also called for more transparency in the state houses.
“Finding out who is sponsoring bills is paramount to open communications and transparency in government,” he said. “We’ve got to do that. I personally believe you guys are the only ones who should present a bill. If a special group comes to you, you should be the very first filter, but that’s not how the Kansas Legislature does it.”
Commissioner Dave Lewis told legislators he’s worried about the state of mental health care in Kansas and Riley County - especially since the county’s proximity to Fort Riley increases those statistics considering the fragile mental health of some soldiers who come back from war.
“We’ve had local challenges there and devastating situations that’s resulted in deaths and suicides due to PTSD and a lot of different scenarios that we inherit because of our association with the military here,” he said. “It’s something we need to address.”
“We have numerous, numerous challenges on that front,” Boyd said.
Lewis also relayed concerns about flooding and the high insurance premiums that occur with in the county.
“With regard to the insurance program, I know that’s on a federal level,” he said, “but we need to work together and provide security for flooding in our neighborhoods. It’s a big concern for people who want to be able to sell their homes.”
Riley County Health Department Director Brenda Nickel told legislators the state’s decision to opt out of Medicaid expansion has resulted in heartbreaking consequences to its citizens.
“Some of the reason for our decreased revenues has been because of the inability to expand Medicaid,” she said. “By not expanding Medicaid, we are bouncing families between the KanCare eligibility specialists who say you earn too much for Medicaid, you need to go to the (Affordable Care Act) insurance marketplace, and then they go to the insurance marketplace and it tells them you qualify for Medicaid.
“Then we heard a story that’s rather disturbing. There’s been a report of a mother who came in that when she went into a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) office to apply for food stamps, because she needed that type of assistance, she was told she had to wait two hours. The rumor that we’re hearing is that those state employees have been told to have families wait for two hours in hopes that they’ll get weary from the wait and leave.
“From a public health perspective, it’s very disturbing.” Phillips responded that those families need the help that was pledged to them.
“I get personally concerned when we have federal dollars designated to needy families specifically and we’re not doing that,” he said. “That once again becomes a burden on local communities.”
“It’s heartbreaking to sit there and watch a mother or father dissolve into tears because they’ve done everything they can — they’re working two jobs, have children, something happens to their health, they don’t have (access) to preventive health — and they’re bounced,” Nickel said. “They’re just weary.”
“The expansion was to take care of the gap,” Carlin said. “The states that didn’t take advantage of that… it is immoral.”
Local and state leaders all agreed the challenges discussed were difficult, to say the least. Still, commissioner Ron Wells is hopeful collaboration is the key.
“I agree we all work well together here,” he said.