As they look to begin their new terms in office, city commissioner-elects Karen McCulloh and Usha Reddi said they plan to focus on building relationships while balancing spending with debt reduction.
Meanwhile, returning commissioner Rich Jankovich said he expects to continue to be the commission’s swing vote and will look for ways for the commissioners to work together for solutions.
All three will be sworn in at the commission meeting April 16, joining sitting commissioners John Matta and Wynn Butler.
McCulloh and Reddi agreed that budget cuts that will likely come down from federal and state governments in the near future would have a negative impact on Manhattan.
“The biggest challenge is keeping what we have in Manhattan going forward, yet all these things we don’t have control over, having a budget constraint on Manhattan,” Reddi said.
McCulloh said she is extremely concerned with how the state cuts may affect services like mental health and law enforcement. She said if the state reduces or eliminates income tax, then the funding for mental health, police, roads and even education will take a huge hit. She said the reality is those services need funding. Otherwise, the negative impacts to local communities will come in the form of longer jail terms, larger jails and possibly higher crime. She said the only option the city would have is to raise property taxes to curb those negative impacts, something she is not comfortable doing.
Reddi said she wants to continue funding social services, but that does not necessarily mean all services need funding. She said she likes funding services that get matching grants from other entities; she said that is an effective way of funding. On the other hand, she said giving money to a social service that is no longer crucial because the community needs have changed is not a good use of those funds. She said she wants to look into the services that are being funded and see if there are ways to redistribute funding that creates a greater impact on what the community needs.
AIRPORT TOWER FUNDING
Funding for the control tower at Manhattan Regional Airport has recently become a major topic for the commission. Reddi said she has heard from American Eagle that the commercial flights are able to operate without the tower, but she said she wants to hear more on the subject before making a decision about whether the city should fund the tower.
She said if the airport can operate without the tower and does not put people at risk, then she fully supports letting the tower go. McCulloh said she is also prepared to listen to more experts on the effect the tower has on safety at the airport. She said if the airport continues to function without the tower and safety is maintained, then there is no need to fund it; otherwise she said the tower should be funded.
Jankovich agreed. He said he thinks the commission did the right thing in funding the tower in the short term because public perception is that if the tower shuts down, the airport shuts down. He said that isn’t the case, and the public needs to be educated on what it would mean if the airport stops operating the control tower. He said he is looking forward to hearing from others on how the airport will function with and without the tower.
Another hot topic that has surfaced in the last week is a survey of the levee and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ suggestions to the city. The Corps is suggesting the city raise the levee to increase the flood plain from a 100-year flood plain to a 200-, 300- or longer year flood plain.
“There are suggestions and then there are Suggestions,” Jankovich said.
He said the Corps has ways of putting pressure on communities that will force them to spend money on the levee that the city may not want, but the alternative is more business owners and home owners buying flood insurance. He said as a result, the new commissioners need to be brought up to speed in a very short amount of time in order to make an educated decision on what the Corps is proposing.
In looking at issues that have been brought up repeatedly in the past, the new commissioners believe there is more to be done to ensure safety and equal opportunity within the community.
Reddi, McCulloh and Jankovich agreed the rental inspection program that was repealed by the current commission served a specific purpose, but more needs to be done.
Reddi said continuing to educate tenants on their rights and responsibilities is a necessity. She said tenants need to feel secure in the knowledge that they have someone to go to if there is a problem with an apartment. On the other hand, she doesn’t think fining landlords is the right course of action.
McCulloh and Jankovich both said that at minimum that there needs to be rental registration in Manhattan. McCulloh said in her discussion with the police and fire department, public safety is a great concern. She said people need to be in apartments with at least a minimal level of safety.
McCulloh and Jankovich said they also see an opportunity to rehabilitate some of the properties by converting them back into single-family dwellings. Jankovich said since the repeal of the ordinance, several new apartments have been built and become available. As a result, the less desirable apartments have become available, and he has seen more “For Rent” signs on the older houses.
“I call it flight to better,” Jankovich said.
He said he would like to see if money could be made available to some of those properties to make them single-family or two-family units, which would not only improve the houses, but also the communities.
McCulloh also said that while she thinks more is needed, she is not looking to step in to her new role as city commissioner and demand the city take another look at rental inspections. However, she said if college students or renters come to her and ask the commission look at inspections again, she would be happy to bring it up.
In looking at repealed ordinances, the commissioner also agreed more should be done on discrimination. Reddi said there are already laws in place governing discrimination, but that is not solving the problem. She said the commission needs to look at ways of changing the mindset of the community rather than pushing more laws though that has no effect on discrimination.
Jankovich agreed. He said the problem with the previous ordinance was that it overreached.
“I want to engage the community and see if we can bring these people together,” he said. “Even the crafters of the ordinance thought we overreached. It was the specific things on separate bathrooms and things like that that really got people’s dander up.”
Jankovich said he would like to sit down with the LGBT community and discuss what it is going through. He said maybe what the city needs is a statement that describes the things the city will not tolerate, and then enforce it.
In general, the three commissioners agreed that everyone needs to work together more on all issues facing the city, and then work toward common ground. Jankovich said he is perceived as having the swing vote and is comfortable in that role. McCulloh and Reddi said while they are perceived as leaning more toward liberal ideas, they, too, want to see more cooperation on the commission.
The new commissioners will be sworn in April 16. While that commission meeting agenda will be relatively light, Jankovich said that at the following meeting Reddi and McCulloh will have to be ready to dive in to “meaty” issues facing commissioners and the city.