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City to discuss possibility of allowing digital billboards

Manhattan city commissioners on Tuesday will look at possibly implementing digital billboards in the Little Apple.

The work session begins at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. Commissioners will provide feedback on the subject, and no formal vote will occur.

Digital billboards, which are currently prohibited in the city, are typically large signs with rotating advertising displays.

City administrators are seeking feedback from the commission about if digital billboards should be allowed; and if so, where the billboards can be installed in the city.

Additionally, city administrators want feedback about the size for these billboards. City officials said off-premise advertising signs cannot be larger than 260 square feet, according to current city code.

Off-premise advertising signs also cannot exceed 30 feet in height.

Commissioners will provide feedback if the billboards should follow these guidelines.

If the commission reaches consensus on implementing digital signs, city administrators will bring back a formal draft for commissioners to consider at a future meeting.

Also during the meeting, Kris Vehrs, executive director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is presenting Sunset Zoo and the city a national accreditation certificate.

In addition to these topics, the Manhattan Economic Development organization is presenting its 2018 report to the commission.

Highlights from the report include the creation of 1,611 jobs from companies with active economic development agreements, officials said. That is 10% more than the projected total, officials said.

The report also includes information about completed projects at Kansas State University and Manhattan Regional Airport.

Lewison swears in as 21st judicial district judge

Kendra Lewison is officially the first female district court judge in the 21st Judicial District’s history.

District Chief Judge Grant Bannister swore in Lewison on Friday at the Riley County Courthouse. Lewison fills the vacancy created by the June retirement of then-Chief Judge Meryl Wilson.

Lewison practiced law for 24 years prior to her appointment as district judge. She graduated from Kansas State University in 1992 and the University of Kansas School of Law in 1995.

From 2010 until her appointment, Lewison was an assistant Riley County attorney, primarily prosecuting felony drug and sexual assault offenses.

She also worked with Kansas Legal Services in Wyandotte County, the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office and Shook, Hardy & Bacon, LLP, in Kansas City, Missouri.

After serving one year in office, Lewison will stand for a retention vote in the 2020 general election to remain in the position. If retained, she will serve a four-year term.

City officials discuss sales tax proposal

Manhattan city government officials said they view an upcoming special ballot question as a long-term way to complete several projects throughout the city.

Mayor Mike Dodson, city manager Ron Fehr and deputy city manager Jason Hilgers visited the Mercury Thursday to make their case for the 0.3% sales tax increase that will be on the ballot Nov. 5. They said approving the increase would provide stable funding for the projects now. If voters opt to postpone finding funding, they said officials may choose to increase property taxes to fund individual projects.

“If the answer is no, all these projects will come back before the governing body,” Hilgers said.

If passed, the proposal will raise the city’s sales tax to 9.25%. It would bring in an estimated $3.3 million, which would go toward paying for six projects:

• Maintenance and improvements to the levee on the east side of Manhattan, which protects much of the downtown area from potential flooding

• Road improvements along the North Campus Corridor, including street widening, turn lanes and intersection upgrades

• Reconstruction of the runway and taxiway at Manhattan Regional Airport

• Infrastructure improvements in Aggieville, including a parking garage, improved water, wastewater and storm sewer infrastructure and lighting

• New courts and other expansions at the Douglass Recreation Center

• A new building for several city maintenance departments, including forestry, street, water and parks

The increase would put Manhattan’s rate 10th among cities in Kansas. It now sits at 18th. A 0.3% increase would amount to an extra 45 cents on a $150 grocery bill, $1.50 on a $500 TV or another $90 on a $30,000 vehicle.

City officials will prioritize the levee project. It would raise the levee up by 3 feet and replace gates and relief wells. Because of a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city is obligated to pay for $13.4 million of the $33 million project. The Corps has agreed to pay for the remainder.

Dodson said the levee improvements are crucial to make sure that area of Manhattan is protected from flooding. Downtown Manhattan and many other large businesses are on that side of town, as is the water treatment plant.

“That levee protects about $1.4 billion of our economy,” Fehr said.

Dodson said he viewed the airport improvements as inevitable as well because the facilities must meet safety requirements to stay in operation.

“If the FAA comes down in two or three years and we’ve got a real fundamental problem with the runway, then we’ve got no alternatives,” Dodson said.

They said improvements along the North Campus Corridor, such as the intersection of Kimball and Denison avenues, will be important for attracting people and businesses to K-State and the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The work is predicted to take about $25 million from the sales tax money. The city did some work on Kimball Avenue this summer, but Fehr said further work will be necessary to match the facilities at NBAF and K-State Athletics.

Fehr said 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles drive on Kimball Avenue daily, and officials believe that that demand is only going to increase as more businesses come to that part of town.

“We have these world-class facilities with NBAF, BRI, grain science, athletics, and we have a rural roadway that is very inadequate,” Fehr said. “If we’re going to be successful in attracting the best talent, we need a corridor they want to come to.”

Hilgers said while officials want to fund city projects partially with private investment as well, some will be more likely to invest if the city government is providing some funding as well.

“If you’re fully educated and aware of how much is being invested, it’s logical to think there’s going to be some sort of city investment,” Hilgers said.

Sales tax is often viewed as regressive, meaning that the burden is greater for poorer people. Dodson noted that if the state chose to change the law and not charge sales tax on food, the city could weather that, although tax on food sales does bring in a lot of money to the city. Fehr said raising the sales tax in Manhattan takes advantage of the city’s status as a regional shopping hub, spreading the burden between residents and visitors.

“We have more than just residents contributing to that revenue stream,” Fehr said.

Hilgers said the projects would eventually be completed anyway, but a sales tax would make it possible to pay for the projects without cutting other services. The city commission could approve cuts to any of its departments, but Hilgers said with the added sales tax they could continue to provide those programs.

“It comes down to what recreation programs, what parks do you not want us to maintain?” Hilgers said. “Which fire don’t you want us to put out? What water line don’t you want us to fix?”

Nickolas Oatley / Staff photo by Nickolas Oatley  

Ania Payne, Josh Brewer and their dog, Baloo, pick out pumpkins from A & H Farm at the Manhattan Farmers Market on Saturday.

Pawnee Mental Health celebrates crisis stabilization center’s completion

For Wayne Sloan, the creation of Pawnee Mental Health Service’s new crisis stabilization center means a lot to him and his family.

Sloan’s son, Ryan, died 11 years ago at the age of 32; Ryan, Sloan said, committed suicide.

“It’s amazing the hopelessness that people find themselves in, whether it be a family member, a friend or a co-worker, and having the ability — or not having the ability — for some place to go when you have somebody in need,” said Sloan, CEO of BHS Construction. “And this is a very important facility, and we want to thank you on behalf of our family.”

Sloan, whose company completed the project, was among Manhattan city commissioners, state legislators and community members celebrating the facility’s completion Friday.

Pawnee staff and others cut the red ribbon to symbolize the opening of the center at at 1558 Hayes Drive.

The center officially opens its doors Nov. 4, but staff begins training Monday.

The center will assist non-violent adults who come to the facility on their own will. People suffering from mental health problems can opt to visit the center, which will be open 24 hours a day, instead of going to a hospital or emergency room.

“There’s so many people that need to have crisis services,” Sloan said. “And as I stated in my comments before, my son passed away from suicide, and at that point in time, we had no place to turn. We knew we had an issue, and we had no place to go. And so my wife and I are just thrilled at the opportunity to have this available.”

Laura Howard, secretary for the Kansas Department for Children and Families and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, called the center’s opening a “new day in mental health.”

“This is really positive for individuals and families that live in this catchment area,” Howard said.

State Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, expressed that this is a better alternative, so people don’t have to drive to Osawatomie State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital 130 miles southeast of Manhattan, for help.

“People shouldn’t have to be in a car to go from Manhattan to Osawatomie when they’re so sick,” Carlin said.

Pawnee serves people in 10 surrounding counties, including Riley, Pottawatomie, Geary, Jewell, Mitchell, Republic, Cloud, Washington, Marshall and Clay.

Bruce Johnson, crisis stabilization manager, said Pawnee is thrilled to open up the facility.

“We’re really so excited to be able to bring this out to the community and the service area, and to be able to help those people get the right care, the right place, the right time, that they need,” Johnson said. “We know that makes a huge difference.”

The project started when several community members got together to address the need for mental health services, said Robbin Cole, executive director of Pawnee Mental Health Services.

Nineteen months ago, Pawnee sent a grant proposal to Timothy Keck, then-secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

Four months later, the facility signed a contract and received $725,000 in start-up funds, Cole said.

“I am not being humble, I am simply stating the facts when I say there is simply no way Pawnee Mental Health could have done that without that start-up funds,” Cole said. “Those start-up funds were absolutely essential to this project getting off of the ground.”

Construction of phase one began in February 2018 and construction of phase two began April 18 of this year, Cole said.

Cole said the state of Kansas provided $700,000 to help the crisis center in its first year of operation.

“And again, this is yet another statement of the state’s commitment to this project,” Cole said.

Cole said crisis stabilization centers in the state will soon get revenue from “lottery vending machine dollars.”

“Those dollars haven’t started flowing yet,” she said.

In addition, the Goldstein Foundation issued a $200,000 grant to the center. Sloan and his wife, Cindy, also donated $25,000. Pawnee is close to hitting another $25,000, receiving $20,164.05 in contributions as well, Cole said.

Cole said Architect One completed the design plans, and BHS Construction “worked tirelessly” over the last few months.

“We’re so grateful to them for the work that they did in helping bringing us to fruition,” Cole said.