Stricter state and federal guidelines for the treatment of wastewater are forcing the city to upgrade its plant — a project that will cost an estimated $23 million. Although the city may be able to apply for a low-interest loan from the state, no grants are available to help pay for the project.
This is just one example of an "unfunded mandate" — a regulation passed down from the state or federal level that requires certain actions but does not provide funding for those actions.
"Many of the things that we do are governed by various agencies, and sometimes, each agency imposes requirements on city functions," said Lunda Asmani, assistant city manager for budget and finance.
Local officials have seen an increase in unfunded mandates the past few years, and they don't expect the trend to change.
"State and federal mandates have always existed, although within the past couple years, there seems to be more," said Anthony Swartzendruber, assistant administrator and finance director for the county. "As the state is looking for ways to cut their budgets, more programs are being pushed to the county."
An example of an unfunded mandate at the county level is the local environmental protection program, which was set up by the state to be carried out by local governments. This program includes water well testing. Although the program was once paid for by the state, they recently pulled the funding.
"They requested counties continue to carry out the program," Swartzendruber said.
Law enforcement must now cover the cost of those arrested for a third DUI; they used to serve time in a state prison but now are placed in county facilities.
Asmani said many of the mandates are "well intentioned" but often place a strain on local governments.
The state generates a list of noxious weed species the city must control or eradicate (the list currently has 12), and this costs the city about $11,000 a year. The state does provide grants to private land owners to purchase products to control the weeds, but local governments are not eligible for these grants. The county's noxious weed department also must spray county road right-of-ways.
"The city has to control these noxious weeds using our own resources," Asmani said.
Unfunded mandates can have indirect financial costs, as well, such as additional staff time. When the state passed the offender registration program down to the county, Swartzendruber said the county had to assign a deputy to oversee the program, taking the deputy away from other duties.
Asmani said the money local governments do receive also could be cut in the future. The Federal Aviation Commission used to have a funding system where it provided 95 percent of the funding for a project, and the local match was 5 percent. After the city and county had already planned a $7 million runway project at the local airport, the FAA changed the funding system to a 90 percent/10 percent split.
"After we had signed on to do the project, our local cost doubled," Asmani said.
A Kansas Department of Transportation grant did provide some funding to cover the additional 5 percent, but the city and county will have to pay the 10 percent match in the future.
School districts feel the impact too — the mandate for healthier school snacks is one example. USD 373 board member Barbara Bunting indicated her concern about federal over-reach, even if the mandate was good for students.
"Unfortunately, hours and days and weeks of the school year are consumed with compliance, evaluation, reporting and auditing of the mandates," she said.