Group closer to putting social services ordinance to a vote

By Burk Krohe

Save Our Social Services (S.O.S), a group of citizens who believe the city has an obligation to help its needy, are currently seeking signatures for petition that would seek an ordinance mandating city funding for social services.

Members of S.O.S say the campaign has gone well, but the implications of a successful campaign are yet to be seen.

Some say it won’t change the city’s budgeting process fundamentally, while others say it could handcuff commissioners and lead to higher taxes.

The issue of social-services funding became contentious during the budgeting process for the 2012 city budget. Commissioners Wynn Butler and John Matta, fiscal conservatives, aimed to reduce the budget and keep property taxes down.

During the budgeting process, Butler suggested reducing social-services funding by 5 percent for 2012, but the motion did not pass. He has said he would ultimately like to see social services funded with private donations.

Debbie Nuss, of S.O.S, said the petition was started after hearing such discussions about reducing funding.

“Over the years these various social service agencies have taken that money and leveraged other funds to provide the social service safety net we have here today,” Nuss said. “If we would eliminate the city’s funding, you start to unravel that safety net.”

The petition seeks to pass an ordinance that would ensure funding from the city for social services.

According to a news release from S.O.S, the proposed ordinance has three key elements. First, it would keep the Social Services Advisory Board (SSAB) as the group responsible for making funding recommendations to the City Commission. Second, it would require the city to spend 2 percent of the general fund on social-services funding every year. Lastly, it would require funds to be carried over for future social-service spending if all the allocated funds in a year are not spent.

Nuss said the first signatures were collected on Nov. 9. From that date, S.O.S has 180 days to collect 1,494 signatures, which comes from a calculated percentage of the electorate. The deadline is April 7.

Nuss said the group estimates it has collected about 1,000 of the required 1,494 signatures to force action on the ordinance. Nuss noted that at least 250 of those came from efforts on Jan. 22, which the group dubbed “Social Services Sunday.” The petition was circulated at a variety of churches in town that day.

“Over the course of the next month, we should be getting close to the required number,” Nuss said.

She said S.O.S plans to collect about 2,000 signatures because there is usually an error rate with petitions. The signatures will have to be validated by the county clerk, who will weed out duplicate signatures, unregistered voters and non-residents. Once signatures are validated, the City Commission has 20 days to adopt the ordinance or put it to a public vote.

Ron Fehr, city manager, noted the upcoming August election is a county election, so putting the referendum on that ballot would not cost the city any additional funds. However, if the referendum goes to a special election, Fehr said the city would be responsible for the entire cost. He said, at this time, he would not offer an opinion “one way or the other” on the petition.

“The discussion and debate will be somewhat interesting,” Fehr said.

However, adoption seems unlikely.

“I won’t vote for it,” Butler said. “It’s extreme.”

Butler termed the petition a “major overreaction,” saying he thinks it will do more harm than good. Butler said there seems to be a misconception that he is against social services, but he said that is untrue. He said he just prefers a “paradigm shift” in how social services are funded and sees several problems with the petition.

Butler said he likes the idea of a foundation, which would leverage private funds. He said it seems more like a more reasonable, long-term solution. He added that the Flint Hills Discovery Center recently started a foundation to aid in fund-raising.

“That, to me, was an excellent model,” Butler said. “This foundation thing works.”

Nuss disagreed with the practicality of that strategy. She said it seems like a duplication of effort, which also comes with overhead costs for the organization. 

“Many of the social service agencies already have funds established with the Greater Manhattan Community Foundation,” Nuss said. “I really don’t understand why you would want to create another foundation.”

She added that it makes sense to use the existing foundation.

Butler also said mandating funding at 2 percent will restrict the commission and, in some years, would actually see an increase in funding. He said he doesn’t agree with mandating an increase.

Over the last decade, funding for social services has been between 1.7 and 2 percent of the budget. Nuss said that is on what S.O.S based the 2 percent figure in the petition. She said it is “not an unreasonable request.”

“If you look back from this year, 2012, it’s been right at 2 percent,” Bernie Hayen, city finance director, said.

Hayen said if the petition goes to a referendum and passes, it will make little difference to the finance department.

“From my standpoint, it doesn’t really have an effect on what we look at one way or the other,” Hayen said.

Butler still believes it could lead to higher property taxes, though. He said it reduces the commission’s options to reduce the budget. However, Nuss argued the 2 percent is not a set number so funding for social services’ funding can be reduced if the overall budget is lowered.

“Two percent is 2 percent,” Nuss said. “If they increase the budget, the dollar amount increases but it’s still only 2 percent of the budget.”

Butler indicated there could also be unintended consequences to putting the issue on a ballot.

“The other options is, which no one has talked about, what if it becomes a referendum and it’s voted out?” Butler said. “Then you can make the leap and say they don’t get anything.”

He said he would have a hard time justifying funding social services if “the voters say ‘we don’t want this.’”

It’s difficult to predict what the outcome would be, but Nuss is confident the measure would pass. She said the Manhattan community has a long history of social consciousness. 

“I’m confident that, based on the response we’re getting, that there is support for social services being funded through the city,” Nuss said. “I’m hopeful that this community will show that they continue to support this.”

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