Let’s make a great city better

John Matta

By A Contributor

Editor’s note: John Matta was elected Manhattan’s new mayor Tuesday. This, edited for length, is the text of his remarks.

First, I want to thank outgoing commissioners Loren Pep-perd and Jim Sherow for their service. Both are former mayors and have given an enormous amount of their time and effort to serving the community. I also want to welcome our “new” commissioners — Rich Janko-vich, who is returning; Karen McCulloh, who is also returning after generously serving on the County Commission; and Usha Reddi. Last election we had three brand new city commis-sioners.  This year you are it, Usha. New people bring new perspectives, and as we move forward, I believe that is critical.

We are a very fortunate community. Most communities around the country were hard hit by the recession, and many, if not most, still have not yet recovered. I am originally from California, which was hit especially hard. California’s high tax rates, strict regulatory policies and reliance on debt made it particularly vul-nerable. Last year, Stockton, Calif., became the largest city in history to declare bankruptcy.

However, here in Manhattan we have not missed a beat. We have had new construction, new businesses, business expan-sions, and recently the an-nouncements of the Kansas Department of Agriculture moving here and full funding of NBAF being included in the president’s proposed budget.

Manhattan has had two key economic anchors in Kansas State University and Fort Riley. Both provide large amounts of employment and investment in the community. K-State has had visionary leadership that is pushing the institution into the elite group of research univer-sities. This was key to the Department of Agriculture’s decision to move to Manhattan. Fort Riley’s proficiency and strategic importance led to the fort faring well in the last force realignment. However, it was the coordination of local, state and national officials and their staffs that sealed that favorable outcome. We owe that group a debt of gratitude for its efforts.

The city has taken matters into its own hands with regard to its economic fortunes. This in-cludes the north and south end developments. I have been a critic of the handling and indeed the wisdom of that endeavor. I still question the debt it brought and the loss of incremental taxes that could have helped fund the infrastructure growth required due to economic expansion. This includes such things as the new fire stations.

However, my point is not to play “what if” games. It was a bold initiative, and bold initia-tives always have critics. The financial indicators show the project meeting its obligations, and I believe the developments have made Manhattan a regional shopping draw. It’s our job now to manage this project to a successful conclusion.

Before looking forward, I want to touch on what I believe to be Manhattan’s best asset — eco-nomic or otherwise. That is our local businesses and entre-preneurs. These are the people who are the backbone of a community. They are the true heroes. They create new wealth and jobs. Also, these are the people who sponsor youth teams and community programs. They and their employees serve on boards and local associations. Their community interest and self-interest are aligned for what is best for the community.

Two of our more notable entrepreneurs of late are Ward Morgan of CivicPlus, who re-cently announced construction of a new building in downtown that will house 300 new employees; and Dave Dreiling of GTM, who is deploying new technology and anticipates hiring more than 600 new employees. While these are the heroes of late, there are many more, such as the Levin family of Varney’s Book Store, which has been providing investment in Manhattan for years and has provided assistance to a wide range of groups around town and brought the New Year’s ball drop to the Little Apple.

I cannot mention everyone or every business, but the list includes bankers, landlords, builders, restaurant owners, insurance providers, retailers, real estate brokers, car dealers, doctors, dentists, engineers, architects, and even accountants and lawyers. I also include the Chamber of Commerce in the group.  If I left your profession out, you have my apologies.

As we look forward, our challenges center on managing growth, both from a community and financial perspective. From a community perspective, the issue is how we keep Manhattan, Manhattan. As businesses and people move into town, how do we maintain that neighborhood feeling? The issues range from traffic to housing policy. 

The new wave in housing is seen by many as more apart-ment/condo-style living and linking these population pods to businesses, schools and shop-ping via walking and bike paths as well as near 100-percent taxpayer-funded transportation. At our last housing summit, this was the kind of development that was touted. However, when one such development was proposed, the neighborhood involved revolted against the idea, and the commission turned down the zoning request 5-0. I thought it was a great development strategically close to Kansas State, but I voted “No” due to the concerns of the neighborhood.

Developing a revised compre-hensive plan must be a major focus. It must take into consider-ation growth projections, traffic patterns, land availability, neighborhood acceptance and cost.  This population pod type of development can be expensive for established neighborhoods. There are economies of scale that can be achieved for totally master-planned communities that are designed up front for such developments. However, even these depend on the acceptance to abandon cars. This is rarely achieved unless extreme traffic congestion is pursued as a matter of policy.

The financial challenges center on two aspects. How do we keep Manhattan affordable in general and from a tax burden perspective? A key to afford-ability is housing costs, which continue to eat up a greater percentage of family income. Manhattan already has arguably the highest housing costs in Kansas.  While land availability is an issue, national and international studies have concluded that the biggest factor in the cost of housing comes from the level of building codes and zoning regulations. The greater the level of regulation a community has, the greater the cost. This commission has control of those factors.

We soon will be reviewing moving to the newest level of building codes, the 2012 codes. It is our practice to move to the highest level of regulation possible. We have always done it that way. Our staff supports this. Local builders know the staff supports this approach. I have been told commis-sioners come and go but staff for the most part stays the same. It makes for a better business strategy to side with staff and support their wishes. Also, larger builders often prefer more regulation because they have the infrastructure and contacts to more easily manage it than do smaller competitors. The increased cost is simply passed on to the consumer. This is an issue that requires looking past the rhetoric.

The tax burden question will be a contest between growth-related costs and incremental tax receipts.  There will also be pressure for additional commun-ity amenities. It is imperative to find a way to bend the cost curve in the community’s favor. One such way is for the city to consolidate in part or in total with Riley County. Former Mayor Kent Glasscock called for unification back in 1989. His reward was grief. Believe me, I have a list of reasons why it will not work or is a bad idea — everything from who pays the city debt to what about the part of the city in Pottawatomie County. However, given the anticipated growth, now is the time to take a holistic approach to the local government process. 

Bold initiatives have critics, but I have learned that critics provide the list of obstacles to be overcome in order to achieve the objective. The objective here is a more streamlined, efficient and responsive local govern-ment as well as a government that can manage development from a more holistic approach.

We have a city-county meeting Thursday. The only item on the agenda is areas for cooperation or collaboration. I call on both parties to look at all opportuni-ties seriously and with purpose.

In closing I’d like to give one final thank-you — to my wife, Karin, and daughters Tori and Jodi. Between my work and commission schedule, they usually come up short. Whether it is not my being home for dinner or going to my home office right after dinner, or having to meet up with them in the middle of vacations and missing events because of scheduling business trips around commission pro-ceedings, they have been great. Well we are on the home stretch now — two years down and two to go.

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