Residents balk at decision

By Burk Krohe

Manhattan residents filled City Hall Tuesday to support a local group’s petition seeking mandated funding for social services agencies. The effort was to no avail, though. City commissioners stopped progress on the petition.

On a 4-1 vote, commissioners followed the recommendation of the city’s legal department and took no action on the petition ordinance. The legal department’s opinion provided commissioners with an alternative other than adopting the petition ordinance without alteration for a period of 10 years or sending it to a vote.

“I think I’m going to have to follow the legal department’s opinion,” Mayor Loren Pepperd said.

Save Our Social Services (SOS) submitted the petition ordinance, which had three main functions. It would have kept the Social Services Advisory Board (SSAB) as the group responsible for making funding recommendations to the City Commission, it would have required the city to spend 2 percent of the city’s general fund on social services funding each year, and it would have required unallocated funds to be carried over for future spending.

The petition campaign was started last fall after discussions on the nature of funding for social services. During the last budget cycle, some commissioners had suggested looking at reducing funding for the agencies and alternative funding mechanisms.

Recently, the county clerk verified the necessary amount of petition signatures. However, Katie Jackson, city attorney, said the city’s legal staff believes the proposed ordinance is an administrative one that cannot be adopted using the initiative and referendum process.

Jackson found that it fails to make a new law, deals with a small segment of an overall policy question (city spending), requires specialized knowledge of municipal affairs and is an issue of statewide concern with decision-making power in the hands of a local council—all characteristics of an administrative ordinance.

SOS consulted its own legal counsel and came to a differing opinion.

“We think that ruling could just as easily be interpreted to support the view that the ordinance is legislative and not administrative,” said Debbie Nuss, SOS co-chair.

Nuss said the SSAB is currently established under a resolution rather than a law. Consequently, SOS feels its ordinance does create a new law. Additionally, Nuss said the Kansas Supreme Court has stated that making such a determination requires carefully weighing the characteristics of the issue, as not to interpret an ordinance so strictly one way or the other.

“We think there’s strong support in the community for this,” Nuss said. “We think the public wants to be heard at the ballot box.”

But the public will not be heard. All commissioners but Jim Sherow sided with the legal department’s opinion and took no action. Commissioner Rich Jankovich said he didn’t find himself in an “easy place” Tuesday. Jankovich admitted there are needs in the community for social services and commended the SSAB for its dedicated work but said that “in this particular case, I tend to be on the side of the legal opinion that’s been rendered,” Jankovich said.

Commissioner John Matta also felt the ordinance was administrative and would interfere with the operations of the City Commission.

Sherow found it sad the city had “arrived at this state.” He said the City Commission seems to be out of step with public on the issue, and it has caused a divide. However, he said he could see arguments for the ordinance as administrative and as legislative.

“If I’m going to err on this I would err on putting this before the public,” he said.

Many members of the public did express their support for the ordinance Tuesday. Advocates said there’s an inherent responsibility to take care of the less fortunate and vulnerable. Several people said 2 percent of the general fund is a small price to pay for the amount of good the agencies do in the community. Others felt that the need for social services will only increase as the city’s population grows, and the ordinance would secure a baseline for funding as the city expands.

Matta disagreed, saying mandating funding for social services isn’t really charity.

“When we have to resort to involuntarily taking money from our citizens, we’re saying we don’t think much of our citizens,” Matta said. “I guess I just have more faith in the people of Manhattan.”

His comments provoked a strong response from Sherow. 

“The children who receive services provided through all of the social services agencies in town did not create this budget problem, but we’re asking them to bear the cost of it?” Sherow said. “That’s not the kind of community I want to be a part of.”

During the discussion, Commissioner Wynn Butler made it clear he didn’t support the ordinance but also acknowledged that the social services agencies provide needed services to the community. Butler said he does not want to see them go away completely. He said for the 2013 budget, he would like to see funding between “the two extremes” of no funding and 2 percent from the general fund.

“I believe there is a compromise possibility,” Butler said.

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