Eight candidates are vying for three spots on the Manhattan City Commission.
Aaron Estabrook is a community liaison at Flint Hills Job Corps, and also served on the USD 383 Board of Education from 2013-2018. Mark Hatesohl served as a commissioner and mayor in the 2000s and also works as a chiropractor.
Kaleb James works at Maximus as a senior business analyst. Current city commissioner Linda Morse used to work at Kansas State University’s distance education program and is now retired.
Maureen Sheahan oversees a K-State research lab in the university’s biochemistry department. Mary Renee Shirk is a comedian and performer, a former local radio personality and news reporter.
Sarah Siders has a private therapy practice at Andrews and Associates Counseling and also is a pastor at The Well. Vincent Tracey is a U.S. Army retiree and works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an information technology specialist.
The Mercury emailed each candidate a set of questions. Here are the eight candidate’s responses. (Answers have been edited for brevity and length.)
The election is Nov. 5. The deadline to register to vote Tuesday, and advance voting in-person and by mail starts Wednesday.
What should the commission do to address flooding issues in the city?
Estabrook: Take action toward long-term solutions, not just band-aids. Future development of retention ponds around Wildcat Creek watershed need to happen now. I will push for availability of Federal Flood Mitigation funds, which allow cities to buy out homes and businesses that are in flood zones or have been impacted by prior floods. The levee project is essential, and it’s going to cost the city at least $11 million. It protects 1,600 acres, 2,300 structures and roughly 7,600 people, $1.2 billion in assets, including our city water facility. This is a big factor to consider when voting on the sales tax.
Hatesohl: There isn’t anything we can do in the city to stop the Wildcat Creek flooding. The city needs to work with and support the upstream detention plan that the county commission study showed would help slow the water inflow into Wildcat Creek. The city needs to continue to lobby Fort Riley for some rainwater detention on their east property edge. Money should be spent on solutions that prevent in-town flooding, not on buying up properties in the flood plain. Stop the flooding and the houses are safe again.
James: The city commission would benefit from working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the county commission to construct retention and/or detention ponds in order to keep citizens safe. Additionally, the building of homes and apartments in areas that are known to be prone to flooding needs to stop.
Morse: Manhattan is situated at the convergence of two rivers. The level of flooding continues to rise with each successive year. After the 1993 flood, the elevation set by community consensus as the lowest level for new residential development has proved to be inadequate. A higher community standard is now necessary to raise the elevation required for new development. That is difficult to achieve due to the many competing interests. All partners (city, county, adjoining counties, Fort Riley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, developers, landowners) must come together to reach consensus and then bring money to the table to protect residents.
Sheahan: The city is already doing a lot to address the flooding issues, including upgrading the aging storm sewer system, agreement to proceed with enhancements to the levee, run-off limitations for new construction, among other initiatives. That being said, it may be time to reassess drainage in the Northview and east Manhattan area. The sink holes are a major concern, as is the ongoing threat of flooding in some of the Northview neighborhoods. Storm water mitigation in the Wildcat Creek watershed will have to be addressed in cooperation with Riley County.
Shirk: The city should stop approving development in any flood plain, continue the buy-outs of residential properties that are flooding and develop a plan for how to use that land in a way that helps those downstream. The city should accept responsibility for planning and development mistakes of the past and learn from those missteps. Offering yard waste pick-up more than once a year, perhaps after large storms, would be of great service to all of us battling the Kansas weather, while encouraging property owners to help keep stormwater routes and drains clear.
Siders: In order to ensure a safe, affordable and competitive place to live, Manhattan residents need to feel confident that every effort is being made to address these concerns. I am in favor of the improvements to the levee as they will protect key investments downtown, and the federal funding is available to support this. Other measures that may be appropriate would be limiting development in flood plains; buyouts for homes that are at repeated risk of flooding, and specifically along Wildcat Creek, installing retention ponds. As additional measures are recommended, I plan to learn, listen and make thoughtful decisions.
Tracey: The commission and by extension the city have committed to raising the levee after FEMA funding became available. I don’t believe that that action alone will resolve the danger of flooding in the downtown area. The northern area (Marlatt through Dix) is an open gate for flood water to bypass the levee.
Will you vote in favor of the 0.3% sales tax increase? If the measure passes, what should be the priority for that additional money?
Estabrook: Kansas has the highest sales tax on food and groceries in the entire country. The Legislature has the ability to reduce or eliminate sales tax on food and needs to do that. However, the city of Manhattan is dealing with serious flooding concerns and we need to have funding to build-up the levee and mitigate further damage from Wildcat Creek. I will personally support the sales tax because I believe the urgency of flood protection outweighs the gamble of waiting on a better mechanism to pay for it. The revenue should be prioritized toward public safety projects.
Hatesohl: I will personally vote for it because the city has been kicking these projects down the road as far as they can. This way at least some of the money for these projects will come from visitors to the community and not all from the Manhattan citizens in the form of property taxes. The first projects will be the airport runway and the levee improvements. The commission will have to be diligent to get these projects funded and not allow this money to get lost in the budgeting process.
James: I will begrudgingly vote for the 0.3% sales tax increase. If the measure passes, I would like to see funds dedicated to paying off the six projects with prioritization set to levee enhancements. In the future, I would like to see the commission commit and implement a sunset to any tax proposal on the ballot. Also, include language that states if the tax performs well and pays off the project early the tax would sunset the first day of the following month and any additional income would be allocated to street maintenance.
Morse: The proposed [0.3%] sales tax initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot will support projects outside of the regular budget that assures continued economic vitality: public safety needs, flood response, transportation infrastructure and investing in our youth. These initiatives have been very transparent to citizens via open meetings, public hearings and news articles. While both sales taxes and property taxes are viewed as regressive, I will support the sales tax increase because these projects are needs, not wants. Ballot initiatives provide dedicated revenue streams to fund the projects. Consider it making good on a promise.
Sheahan: I do not plan to vote for the sales tax increase. If the tax increase does pass, my funding priorities would [be] the levee enhancements, the airport runway and the Douglass Recreation Center. Aggieville does need attention, including fixing the sewers, which could be combined with streetscape and sidewalk enhancements, but work in Aggieville needs to proceed carefully and must include an ongoing dialog with the business owners to ensure that their businesses are not negatively impacted. The worst outcome for Aggieville would be for the local businesses to not survive the duration of the planned construction.
Shirk: No, if the measure passes, the priority for that money should be to complete the projects promised to the voters when the tax was proposed. I support the projects that have been proposed; my opposition to the tax is the lack of planning for the future. The airport runway needs to be replaced; we need to realize it will need to be replaced again in the future. The city should be saving money for that eventual project instead of the current model of assuming voters will approve a tax increase.
Siders: The sales tax initiative is a difficult proposition as sales tax has a disproportionately negative impact on lower-income people. In addition, the fact that the sales tax does not have a sunset is another concern of mine. However, sales taxes are in part shared with visitors, which is a benefit, rather than property tax increases, which burden only residents. In addition, there are several projects, such as the North Campus Corridor improvements, Aggieville parking garage and Douglass Center, which have varied funding sources and would create momentum toward quality of place. For these reasons, I would support the sales tax.
Tracey: In general, I favor sales tax increases over property tax increases. I would have preferred a sunset date and designated usage for the increase. If the initiative passes it should first be used for those safety projects that the city has already committed to.
Do you have any specific ideas to stimulate the economy? If not, what existing initiatives are most important?
Estabrook: A workforce housing initiative is a new idea I support. Manhattan is not a stepping-stone to a better place; it is the better place. The core of our attractiveness to the outside is based on the capacity we already have on the inside. We need to reach our potential with the tools and talent we have today. This can be accomplished by empowering the private sector entrepreneurs to make small bets in our community knowing that the city is creating a culture of discovery by being innovative and in some cases removing the government and bureaucratic hurdles that stifle improvement.
Hatesohl: With enrollment down at KSU for the near future, we need to support Manhattan Technical College and help them to expand their programs. The jobs for their grads are in demand, their starting wages after graduation are good and the educational experience is less expensive. We need to ease up on some of the zoning and code ordinances. These are making projects too expensive and too cumbersome. The hold-up with the new Braum’s store is an example of too many regulations. We need to continue with the chamber’s Region Reimagined initiative to develop a new eco-devo plan for the future.
James: Yes, stop raising property tax rates. Also, work with business organizations in the city to identify the pain points for new and existing businesses, especially small businesses and determine what burdens exist that the city can assist with.
Morse: We must challenge all citizens to come forward with ideas to bring more people into the workforce. We must use our collective influence to attract students to K-State, keep Fort Riley strong and vital, and continue to serve farmers and regional agricultural interests. Consider the overall economic impact that NBAF construction alone has made on our local economy. The city contracts with the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce to lead on these fronts. A major new effort called Region Reimagined is working to revitalize the local economy. I want to make every single economic development dollar count.
Sheahan: One of the fastest ways to enhance economic growth is to invest in human capital, including putting more dollars in the hands of those who would spend the money locally and quickly. Investment in physical capital and entrepreneurship are longer term growth vehicles. Thus, initiatives that enhance wages, particularly at the lowest incomes, would have the quickest return on investment. I would be interested in exploring ideas such as incentives for local small businesses that increase wages for their lowest paid employees. I am in favor of finding ways to invest eco-devo dollars in local small businesses.
Shirk: In 2015, the arts contributed $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy, more than agriculture, transportation or warehousing. Many other cities, [like Salina], have an arts and humanities position to use the arts as an engine to drive economic development. It is difficult for retail businesses to compete with the internet, and people are becoming less focused on acquiring things and more focused on having experiences. I was a member of the CVB task force to examine ways to deal with the loss of Country Stampede. It became clear Manhattan needs to make a solid investment in arts, music and entertainment.
Siders: My goal is to see Manhattan become a place of prosperity for everyone. Prosperity comes from an expanding tax base in which our community not only supports our local businesses, but also successfully brings in dollars and investments from the outside by attracting businesses and individuals. The businesses we want to attract are looking to hire the globally talented. While this next generation could live anywhere, we want them in Manhattan. Attracting the talent of young professionals is key to prosperity, and for this reason, we must understand what this next generation is looking for in a place to live.
Tracey: I will work to get the state lawmakers to remove the taxes on food/groceries so more people can afford living here. If this can be done it would free up funds for our lower-income citizens. This would make more funds available for them to buy from our businesses.
Do you think the commission has properly handled the property tax rate? If not, what should the city do differently?
Estabrook: The previous commissions have put the citizens of Manhattan in a position where we have to choose between running the risk of losing everything in a flood, or pay more every time we make a purchase in Manhattan in order to build a levee that will protect us. No taxpayer wants to see property taxes increase, including me. I’m going to do all I can to make our community safer and stronger while keeping property taxes flat. I’ll respect the voter’s decision on the sales tax and make our budget work accordingly.
Hatesohl: The city hasn’t been the main driver of property tax increases, that falls on the school board and county commission. I am afraid that in an effort to keep property tax increases down, the city commission has been raiding the economic development fund. I worry that we are eating our seed wheat and when we need some money to help a local business expand or bring a new business here, there may not be the funds available that were intended for that use. With franchise, permit, water, wastewater and storm water fees, the city has a lot of other ways to generate revenue, beside property taxes.
James: No, they have not. There should be a flat mill rate and the commission should be forced to operate within a budget. For the past six years, the commission has repeatedly used property tax increases to bail themselves out of making difficult decisions. The commission cannot continually increase the cost of living through taxation and simultaneously claim to support affordable housing in Manhattan.
Morse: Each year, the city commission listens to our community in multiple meetings and balances priorities in order to establish a budget that determines taxing levels. This year saw a minimal increase of 4/10th of one mill to maintain services and safety. It is important to consider that the citizens of Manhattan have voted to support alternative funding for street repairs, school routes, pools, trails and two new indoor activity centers. I interpret those votes as support for the current city budget and almost flat property tax rate levels. The majority of citizens support the initiatives to hold down property taxes.
Sheahan: Because the city currently has only two revenue streams — sales tax and property tax — the commission is stuck between a rock and a hard place. In years past, the state provided revenue sharing with municipalities. When the economy was flat, these revenues buffered against lower sales taxes. Cities no longer receive that buffer and won’t unless the state changes the income tax bracket. Collection of internet sales tax may help, that process is no yet in place. There are a lot of factors that tie into this question and 100 words is not sufficient to scratch the surface.
Shirk: Yes and no. As a homeowner, I’ve watched my property taxes go up due to increases by the city, county and school district. The elected officials of these governing bodies need to acknowledge the cumulative effect these taxing entities have and realize there is a limit to what we are willing/able to pay. Elected officials must take taxpayer’s input and criticisms seriously. As commissioner, my goals will include increasing civil engagement. I will utilize social media and regularly scheduled office hours to discuss citizen’s concerns, air grievances and allow more involvement in decisions affecting the property tax rate.
Siders: From my review of the city budget and conversations with city staff, there is not much margin in the budget from year to year, but the need to increase the mill levy each year concerns me. From my conversations with residents, I hear an experience of ever-increasing taxation, leading to a wariness of new tax-funded initiatives and a lack of trust of government. I would like to see the city more efficiently utilize the funding we currently have without consistently raising the property tax rate to pay for services. I believe the passing of the sales tax could help with projects.
Tracey: One of the reasons that I am running is the ever-increasing property taxes. Understanding there are other taxing bodies that affect the property taxes, I believe the city must coordinate with those bodies to help flatten the taxing rates. Currently, people are choosing to live outside of the city and county where taxes are more affordable.