Karen McCulloh has been working in civil service for the better part of two decades. So when she decided to not run for re-election to the county commission last year, it was for personal reasons.
“I really, really enjoy it,” she said. “And, I would run again, except you are very tied down as county commissioner.”
McCulloh said having two commission meetings each week makes it hard to go anywhere, like visiting her son who lives in San Francisco. She said she has her “responsibility nub” polished and cannot step away from the various committees that a commissioner is appointed to.
“I really feel like if I am doing this job and getting paid, I need to be on all the committees and go to all the meetings and all that kind of stuff,” she said.
As a result, McCulloh said she works the equivalent of about three-fourths time, and would like to be able to spend more time with family, including her husband, John.
McCulloh was first elected to the county commission in 1993. After serving one term, she ran for city commission, won, and served from 1997 to 2001, including a year as mayor. In 2008 she ran for the county commission again and won another four-year term.
She believes she and her fellow commissioners have kept the tax burden on county property owners as low as possible.
“We have kept the mill levy real low,” she said. “The only year we went up significantly was the year that the city, let’s say dumped” the health department on us.”
She lauded creation of the Flint Hills Regional Planning Organization.
“We are really seeing an enthusiasm for partnership that wasn’t there before,” McCulloh said. “Manhattan was always the 900-pound guerilla, and I think we have implanted the idea in many people’s minds that if we share, we do better for everybody.”
For example, she said Morris County has been directing more interest to Manhattan with people looking for doctors and shopping here. She said rural shoppers helped contribute to the $10 million in sales tax collected by the half-cent sales tax over the last 10 years.
McCulloh is also proud of being a part of the joint effort by the city and county to convince voters to renew that tax.
“I think on the county side it was very defensible for the first 10 years,” she said. “The city side was a little more ambiguous about where the money went; ‘roads and bridges’ is pretty concrete—no pun intended.”
McCulloh said she is also happy with the transportation side of regional planning. She was shocked when the city decided to no longer fund mass transit because everyone stood up and said they supported it. She said when the woman running the homeless shelter can get people jobs but cannot get them to those jobs, transportation is a problem .
McCulloh said she is proud of her work to encourage the Household Hazardous Waste collections and obtaining a grant for $3 million to install green energy items such as solar panels, solar lights and an oil burning furnace that burns used motor oil from the county. She said the efficiencies created by the alternative fuel sources have saved the county $20,000 this past year alone.
She also looks back fondly at giving social services an 11 percent increase in their budget last year. She said she is also on a mental health task force, and wants to continue to be on that board after leaving office. She would like to do a cost study on putting a regional inpatient facility in Manhattan. She said right now there is no place to put mental patients, except the jail.
“In 2011, we had two people who were in Osawatomie that were released from the facility and came back and killed two people,” she said. “So, it’s an issue. Mental health is where cancer was 35 years ago—nobody wanted to talk about it.”
She said her only regret is not winning implementation of a county manager system. She thinks the county commission needs to let a professional handle the day-to-day operations while letting the commission take a “policy setting” role.
With all the flexibility, McCulloh said she has been called by several people in the community to step up to various positions, including running for city commission again. She is still considering doing so, but has not made a decision. She said several people have asked her if she plans to move closer to her children, but her response is “absolutely not!” She said her daughter, now living in Wisonsin, moves around too much. As for her son, she said she could never afford to live in San Francisco.