Residents of Newton gathered at Grand Central Thursday evening to get a sense of their prospective commissioners — incumbents Glen Davis, Leroy Koehn and Kathy Valentine, as well as challengers Libby Albers, Ron Eggert and Craig Simons — who will appear on the ballot this November.
Introducing themselves at the start of the evening, the incumbents spoke to how their various histories of service with the commission have deepened their connection and commitment to Newton. Davis spoke to bringing integrity to the position and not making promises he can't keep, while Koehn discussed the responsibility he takes in his role. For Valentine, reliability is what she has tried to strive for in her duties — and what she expects of any of the commission candidates.
"Public office is a public trust and you, the citizens, have to be able to trust your local, elected officials," Valentine said
History was brought up by the challengers as well in spurring their pursuit of office, whether it be a history of commitment (Eggert's 52 years with the same employer before retirement) or a previous history in government/public service —regarding former Harvey County Administrator Simons and Albers having worked for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Those in attendance had plenty of questions for both, with several centering around the city budget — both in a general sense and regarding more specific facets, including any potential plans of spending more money on the Kansas Logistics Park.
Addressing the KLP is something Davis said he has tried to spark conversation on recently — not necessarily in putting more dollars towards it, but in trying to attract businesses to the industrial park by offering deals with certain stipulations (i.e. developing in a certain time frame, creating an agreed upon number of jobs, etc.).
"We have to plant seeds if we want something to grow," Davis said. "We need to try to do something, because it can't sit there empty."
Koehn seconded Davis on the effort to recruit businesses, which most of the candidates were in agreement on, though the means varied. Both Koehn and Simons suggested getting private developers involved to help attract more business to the KLP. For Valentine, she said the focus has to be on targeting smaller, more logistical businesses for the Newton area.
Focusing on smaller businesses was also something Albers spoke to, though not in that specific location. Given that the infrastructure is in place at the KLP, she advocated for looking to help cluster small, entrepreneurial businesses together and create incubator situations in other areas — like downtown.
Budgetary freezes, specifically in regards to the salaries for members of the local fire and police departments, was also brought up as commissioners were asked if that trend would reverse course anytime soon.
Davis stated, bluntly, that there is no money in the budget as the commission continues efforts to try and reverse a trend of deficit spending — in turn trimming an already lean budget in recent years. That has led to the freeze on increases to the cost of living allowances to the two departments in question.
Challengers and incumbents realize the tough position the commission is in trying to provide for city employees, but Simons noted putting such raises on hold creates a difficult scenario in trying to make up those fund increases in future years, while Eggert suggested there could be more imminent negative side effects.
"I don't want to put any of these city employees under the gun," Eggert said, "because what's going to happen if we don't start giving them pay raises next year? They're going to start leaving, and they're going to leave in droves."
Overall, all candidates noted costs going up is a fact of the budgetary process with each passing year. When asked about any plans to increase or decrease the budget if elected, those costs kept coming up as a hurdle to any efforts to decrease the budget.
Koehn admitted he wants to see the city generate more revenue in 2018 to help keep costs where they are, while Simons noted said costs and their upward trend tend to eat away at money for pay increases, though he said he would bring a similar budgetary philosophy as he did to his role as county administrator.
"I think the real trick is to try to keep things steady and not jump it up a whole lot at one time, if that's possible," Simons said.
Minimizing costs is an admirable goal, but as Davis stated that is what the commission has been trying to do — and there is just nowhere left to cut.
Questions for the candidates were not limited to the city's budget either — as potential commissioners were also asked about the bond issue that will be on the ballot for USD 373 this fall regarding facility renovations and expansion.
While the candidates were not overly optimistic about the bond issue — either undecided or leaning towards a vote against it — most agreed that a strong relationship between the city and school is crucial moving forward toward promoting a better overall community.
Unity is something that will go a long ways towards helping both — and something candidates said would have helped from the school board regarding the bond issue. In addition, it is something the incumbents noted is helping the current commission through a tough financial situation of its own.
Asked about the avenues pursued to raise the mill levy for the 2018 budget under the new tax lid, and how the candidates felt about the shifting of funds by an unelected official (city manager Bob Myers), the current commissioners stressed that they had nothing but trust in the city administration and the decisions reached.
"I'm very confident that it will pass the muster," Koehn said. "He did a very good job with that and I'm very comfortable."
Considering the situation the city was coming from, Davis also advocated for Myers and the two-way street he has facilitated in advising the commission and accepting advisement — which he said has not always been the case.
Though the challengers admitted to not having the same amount of insight as the incumbents, they also saw no issues with the shifting of funds and saw the tax lid that forced the workaround as the more troubling issue.
For those unable to attend Thursday's forum, another will be held in October, closer to election day. Check future editions of The Kansan for more information.