Residents will choose from five candidates to fill three seats in the Manhattan City Commission race on Nov. 7.
Before early voting starts Wednesday, The Mercury asked each candidate to answer questions concerning growth, economic development, the budget, balancing citizen and landlord needs, and other priorities.
The top two vote-getters will be elected to four-year terms. The third-highest vote getter will be elected to a two-year term.
The Mercury has condensed the following responses for print. The candidates’ full responses can be found online.
Current commissioner Wynn Butler, 65, retired from both the U.S. Army, where he served for 25 years in infantry and logistics, and Barton Community College at Fort Riley, where he worked for 20 years as associate dean, instructor and executive director of distance learning.
Butler has lived in Manhattan for 37 years total. He has been married to his wife, Mary Ann, for 44 years, and his daughter, Wendy, is a Manhattan High and University of Kansas alum.
Kaleb James, 28, is a senior business analyst for Maximus, a government contractor. He has lived in Manhattan for five years and in the Manhattan area since 1999.
James has a wife and three children.
Jerred McKee, 25, is an account manager for CivicPlus. He has lived in Manhattan for eight years.
Current commissioner and former mayor Usha Reddi, 52, is a teacher at Ogden Elementary.
She has lived in Manhattan for 25 years. Reddi is married to Brian Niehoff. She has four grown children: Ravi Reddi, Sri Reddi, Santhi Reddi and Ben Niehoff.
Brian Thomason, 58, is the CEO of Networks Plus, Blue Valley Tele-Communications and One Point Technologies.
He has lived in Manhattan for more than two years.
Thomason has been married to his wife, Rebecca, for 37 years. They have two daughters: Sarah lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, Angel, and Jessica and her husband, Cory, live in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Q: What is the most important area that the city should address to accommodate growth?
Butler said the emphasis must be on infrastructure and the cost of infrastructure, which should include fire and police protection.
“Growth must pay for the cost of that infrastructure,” he said. “The cost burden should not be passed to existing property owners.”
Butler said city water, stormwater and sewer management is key to future growth.
“We must be able to produce potable water in the quantity needed to support growth,” he said. “In addition, the sewer and stormwater systems need to be upgraded or in new areas installed to handle capacity and prevent flooding.”
Thomason said moderate and planned growth will be positive for Manhattan, but it comes at a cost in areas such as infrastructure.
“To accommodate this growth effectively, it is important that the addition of high-quality jobs be the catalyst behind the progression of our city,” he said.
Reddi said the most pressing need is infrastructure with population projections currently sitting at 75,000 to 80,000 people by 2035.
“This increase will put a great strain on housing, public works, codes, streets, flood protection, storm drainage systems and traffic,” she said. “We need to invest cautiously and plan responsibly for the future.”
Reddi said the critical areas where infrastructure improvements are needed include the North Campus Corridor, Wildcat Creek Watershed, Manhattan Regional Airport and between Pottawatomie County and Manhattan.
McKee said the city should invest in the continued development of Aggieville and Downtown as attractive places to visit, which will bring in additional sales tax revenue.
“A majority of the growth we are going to experience is going to be to the east in Pottawatomie County, but we have the opportunity to increase density in these districts as well,” he said.
McKee said the increased density would provide housing options for young professionals with more people to frequent the retailers and restaurants.
James said bringing down property taxes is the most important way to help the city’s growth.
“If we fail to do that, we will negate any other efforts to help strengthen and grow the city,” he said.
Q: The current figures show economic development revenue split evenly for jobs and infrastructure use. However, the city has flexibility to stray from that format. How should the city approach using the remainder of its economic development revenue?
Thomason said the city’s long-term fiscal health requires securing the right companies offering the right type of employment opportunities.
“This will bring new tax dollars into the city and relieve the current high cost of living those who live in Manhattan are experiencing,” he said.
Thomason said the city should also support local business growth that will lead to high-quality jobs.
“Balance and prudent decision-making will be key in job creation through use of economic development funds, while also addressing serious infrastructure needs the community currently has and will have in the years to come,” he said.
Reddi said both jobs and infrastructure are important uses of economic development.
She said investments made into infrastructure such as Manhattan Regional Airport is a “part of the equation” to create new jobs.
“In today’s world, great talent is very mobile, and they make choices based not only in the job availability but also key factors such as infrastructure,” she said.
Reddi said Manhattan is in a prime location as part of the animal health corridor in addition to Kansas State University.
She said the current economic development model has been successful with more than 1,400 news jobs created in Manhattan.
McKee said the current arrangement seems to have worked effectively, but it’s important to remember that infrastructure improvements are economic development investments.
“There are some big infrastructure projects that we will need to fund in the next decade,” he said. “If some of those projects are going to help bring jobs to the city or have a positive impact on existing Manhattan businesses, it is important that we explore all funding options before we look to raising taxes.”
James said the city should use its remaining funds for supporting existing commitments such as the convention center and investing in development opportunities.
“Should infrastructure be evaluated and deemed necessary for the procurement of long-term, good-paying jobs, then funds should be allocated to those projects from the economic development fund,” he said.
Butler said the city should strive to achieve a ⅓ split between debt reduction, infrastructure and new jobs.
He also suggested a “war chest,” using $5.6 million from the sale of the KSU-IC Building to K-State as an example of what would go into the chest.
“These funds must be fenced and only used for the ‘traditional’ economic development requests or to help pay off the Conference Center debt,” he said.
Butler said he would target at least $10 million for future NBAF-generated business growth.
Q: Where is an area in the budget that could be reduced to save money? Where is an area in the budget that could use more investment from the city?
Reddi said the majority of the budget is city and Riley County Police Department personnel, who provide critical services.
She said savings could be found through sharing costs with other agencies and organizations.
“One way we could save would be to utilize Kansas State University interns or researchers as consultants or collect data,” she said. “This would reduce heavy consultant fees and provide interns relevant training necessary for the work force.”
Reddi said the city should invest more in IT staff and software.
“Technology is usually the most expensive in all respects, but (it’s) a necessary investment to increase productivity, monitor infrastructure and streamline departments,” she said.
McKee said the day-to-day operating costs of the city is our biggest budget expenditure.
“It never hurts to have a fresh pair of eyes evaluate processes to see if cost savings can be realized or more revenue can be generated,” he said.
McKee said he wants to see social service agencies receive money based on a dedicated property tax rate.
“This will most likely not increase the amount of funding dramatically in the short term, but what it does is tie the size and growth of the city into how much funding we are putting towards these agencies,” he said.
James said the way to address both questions involved reevaluating the debt payment process and examining the best benefits for the city.
“We have areas where we are ahead and we have required payments that are consistently up for debate as to how they are going to be paid,” he said. “We need to commit to a plan to drill down the debt as quickly as possible and free up more of the city’s income.”
Butler said the city should focus on six principles to reduce the tax burden:
- No further increase in the city sales tax
- Reducing $277.5 million city debt
- Lean management principles to eliminate duplication and waste
- Leveraging technology to reduce the need for more personnel
- Limiting total property tax dollar grants to “outside agencies” not under city staff management to a maximum of 1 mill per year
- Maximizing return on revenue streams generated from grants and other sources not tied to property tax
“The goal is to reduce the citizen’s tax burden, not necessarily the size of the budget,” he said.
Thomason said all line items in any budget provides an opportunity for saving taxpayer money.
“It is up to the Commission to ensure that budgets are set each fiscal year that follow a prudent thought process of safeguarding each and every tax dollar,” he said. “Insuring that these budgetary items are used efficiently is the charter of the City Manager.”
Thomason said investments that promotes moderate and controlled growth is essential.
“Investment that will generate new high-quality jobs is the most important element towards moderate growth and sustaining the quality of life we so value in Manhattan,” he said.
Q: The city has experienced conflict with landlords regarding zoning, rental registry and nonconforming properties. How should the city balance the desires of landlords while meeting the needs of its citizens?
McKee said he doesn’t want to make business difficult for landlords, but “it would be tough to argue” that the city hasn’t had issues with the quality of some housing.
He said the Unified Development Ordinance will resolve most of the zoning and nonconforming properties issues.
“Right now, legally nonconforming properties are having trouble obtaining letters from the city saying they are legally nonconforming,” he said. “This can cause issues especially when the property is being sold. This is something I would want to be sure was solved with the UDO.”
James said the city should recognize that most of the landlords are also local residents and should get the same considerations as other residents.
“That being said, the commission and the citizens have agreed on a vision for growing Manhattan, and a fair balance would be to grandfather existing structures so long as safety codes are being upheld,” he said. “I believe zoning in neighborhood areas should align with the created plan for that area and that the people of that neighborhood should have a voice in its development.”
Butler said the recent rental registration ordinance accomplished the goal of balancing landlord desires and the needs of the citizens in part by not increasing the cost of rental housing.
In the next few months, he said the city needs to establish a legal procedure for addressing properties that are currently nonconforming.
“That procedure will require some form of legal certification or grandfathering of properties to include rebuild provisions if a property is damaged,” he said. “In addition the zoning regulations need to be enforced to ensure that new nonconforming properties are not created.”
Thomason said compromised solutions already reached represent a significant step in addressing concerns and needs of all parties involved.
Reddi said the discussion with landlords is ongoing, and the Unified Development Ordinance will assist with further discussions about nonconforming properties.
She said she’s satisfied with the compromise reached on rental registration.
“The landlords represent an important component of the business sector of Manhattan,” she said. “We must work with the landlords in creating a better living environment for our citizens who rent.”
Q: Is there any topic that hasn’t been included in these questions that you would focus on as commissioner?
James said his focus would be bringing foresight and technological prowess that is currently lacking in the commission.
Butler said the next commission must start the process for developing the renewal of the economic development sales tax, which will expire in 2022.
He said the guiding provisions are making it a citywide tax not connected to Riley County to gain revenue from Walmart, Hobby Lobby, Menards and other establishments in Pottawatomie County; continue using the development tax for debt reduction, infrastructure and jobs; and using the tax to help pay the $3.5 million that the city will owe in bond and interest payments for the Manhattan Conference Center.
Thomason said Manhattan has a “serious issue” with the shortage in physicians and mental health workers.
“Quality of life takes on numerous definitions and certainly accessibility to high-quality health care is one,” he said. “Therefore, I would work closely with current community health care professionals in Manhattan and the surrounding Flint Hills Region to contribute to their ongoing efforts to address this issue.”
Reddi said increasing the regional workforce and addressing mental health care are two of the city’s biggest challenges.
“We need to collaborate and develop a regional plan to promote the greater Manhattan for work force and discuss measures necessary to take care of individuals and families living with mental illness,” she said.
McKee said he wants to explore a program where the city works with landlords to convert some vacant units from market pricing to income-based pricing. He said this would be encouraged through property tax breaks.
“This would allow us to put low-income people into housing without an investment in infrastructure or handing out a direct subsidy, while allowing landlords a new market in which to rent that wasn’t possible before,” he said.
McKee said he also wants options to alleviate the burden of special taxes, which has led to many people buying homes outside of Manhattan.