Manhattan, Riley County officials consider cooperation, consolidation

By Corene Brisendine

City and county commissioners agreed Thursday that it is time to lay a course of action for intergovernmental cooperation and consolidation.

“[W]e never develop a plan,” said Riley County Commissioner Dave Lewis. “We talk and talk and talk, but don’t actually do anything.”

The meeting was a follow-up on a request by Mayor John Matta that consolidation of governmental services be given a more active consideration locally and regionally.

Although there was much discussion, commissioners agreed to take action in several areas of cooperation and consolidation. Among them were developing a plan of action for consolidating city and county Geographic Information Systems, developing a plan of action for cooperation with traffic signal maintenance and repair, involving Pottawatomie County in a regional effort to get an inpatient mental health facility in the area, and implementing some cooperative strategies that came out of a 2001 consolidation study.

Manhattan City Commissioner Wynn Butler said the county should set up a working group to develop a plan of action for the GIS cooperation, and the city of Manhattan should set up a working group for the traffic lights cooperation. Riley county commissioners agreed.

The GIS group will study ways to either consolidate the responsibilities into one joint department or coordinating other functional responsibilities between the city and county. Pottawatomie County commissioners said they would be interested in coordinating efforts for aerial surveys, but would need to be advised far enough in advance to budget for it.

Manhattan city manager Ron Fehr said the city was already involved with the Flint Hills Intergovernmental Support Partnership, a working group looking into ways of sharing equipment and services among Fort Riley, Manhattan, Geary County and Riley County. He said they are looking into ways of sharing traffic light equipment as well as emergency generators and other specialty equipment needed only once or twice a year.

Manhattan City Commissioner Karen McCulloh, a member of the mental health working group, said their meetings have been postponed until May because of uncertainties in state budgeting. She said there was no point in moving forward beyond where the group is now because nothing could be done without state funding for a facility. Pottawatomie County Commissioner Stan Hartwich said his commission was extremely interested in cooperating to get a mental health facility in the area.

State Rep. Tom Phillips said the legislature is still grappling with a tax strategy, and until that is resolved, they could not begin to work on a budget. He said it would be the end of May before anything could be discussed concerning mental health funding. Lewis said the joint commissions should hold a discussion in June concerning the progress of a mental health facility, a time frame that should give the group enough time to determine how or whether the state will provide funding.

In addition to mental health and aerial surveys, Pottawatomie County commissioners said they are willing to help fund the air control tower at the airport because Pottawatomie County benefitted from it as well. Manhattan City Commissioner Usha Reddi said Manhattan has historically footed the bill for many services that benefitted the region, but has not asked the region to help with the costs. She said the city needed to take the initiative by going to other municipalities and asking for funding for not just the control tower, but other things as well.

Other suggested cooperative efforts passed around the meeting, but not acted upon, included folding the Parks and Rec. Department within the Public Works Department as Riley County did, combining the municipal and magisterial courts into one, cooperative training of county and city workers, cooperative purchasing of consumables such as seed, fertilizer, salt, and pool chemicals, and movement of control of the Riley County Police Department to the county rather than allowing it to function as an outside agency.

While these items were discussed, commissioners agreed to start with those items that were easily implemented or were least controversial.

Butler said each study of cooperation or consolidation needed to be evaluated for three objectives: quality, cost and duplication. He said if the cooperation did not produce equal or better quality, if it did not produce cost savings, and if it did not eliminate duplication of service, it should not be done. Butler said the first step was looking into ways of consolidating functions like the GIS and traffic light maintenance. The next step, which would be four to five years later, would be to consolidate departments. The last step, which would be 10 years or later, would be to consolidate city and county into one local government, but that step is a long way off from where the commissions are today.

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