Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about last Thursday night’s candidate forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Great Bend/Barton County. The first story, with candidates for Barton County Commission District One, appeared in Friday’s Great Bend Tribune.
Four Republican candidates for the Barton County Commission, two for District Four and two for District Five, spoke at Thursday’s Candidates Forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters. The winners of the Aug. 2 primary will be on the general election ballot in November.
Background information provided by each candidate can be found online at greatbend.org, by clicking on the “Candidates Forum July 21” tab located below the photos on the page.
Each candidate answered four questions.
Here is a summary of their answers:
How will you communicate and coordinate your goals to the other cities and townships you represent?
Jon L. Prescott, Ellinwood, District 4 - I am big on face-to-face meetings when it comes to communication and not being on email. Phone calls are fine, but they’re still not as effective and social media is definitely not something that I think is appropriate. The commission has been meeting with other communities every quarter and that has been so productive. We listen to them and what their needs are, what their goals are, and then ask how we can align our goals with them so that everybody’s pulling this wagon in the same direction. That’s going to continue. (He also plans to participate in township meetings and extra meetings with the District 4 communities.)
Tricia Schlessiger, Ellinwood, District 4 - Communication is something I would stress. I would like to see the joint meetings with the cities of Ellinwood and Great Bend continue, and increased involvement with Pawnee Rock. It’s exciting to see what Pawnee Rock is looking to do.
As a former township treasurer, I understand the role of townships, the budgeting process and road maintenance issues. I worked through two FEMA-declared disasters during my tenure as treasurer.
The experience I bring to the table being able to communicate with various teams of individuals is great. For my banking background, I bring relationships with customers and bank examiners and board of directors. In our personal farming industry, I communicate with employees and co-owners and sometimes with my HR hat on, sometimes with my coworker hat. I feel communication is the key to making everything work and I’ll strive to do that.
Rick Davis, Great Bend, District 5 - Everybody’s got some fantastic ideas here. I will say unlike Jon, I probably do rely on social media for some of my communication. I want to get the younger generation involved in some of our politics and running the county. City council and county commission meetings are online but I’d like them to be even a little bit more accessible to everybody via social media.
I agree with coordinating with all the township representatives and city leaders and will attend at least one extra function a week in a district community or township.
Face-to-face is very fantastic but I’m not afraid to pick up the phone to talk to our other leaders in the community. I am available to anyone in Barton County anytime on my Facebook page; my phone number’s on there and I hope to hear from more and more people.
Donna Zimmerman, Great Bend, District 5 - I’ve cultivated relationships with various entities in Barton County through my work as your County Clerk. I’ve worked closely with our 22 townships. nine cities, eight special districts and three school districts through budgeting, the dreaded Revenue Neutral Rate, annual reports, and valuation certifications, to name a few. If elected, I will continue to maintain those contacts in order to provide a supporting role.
In my opinion, it is not the role of the commission to dictate how another elected body governs. They should communicate and support one another. I’d like to see the commission continue the practice of meeting periodically with the other entities. In previous years there were evening meetings in the other locations and I know that they’re continuing that practice today.
Here are some highlights from other answers to questions:
How are you planning on utilizing the relationship with the (Great Bend) Economic Development Board to develop needed programs for housing, childcare and business expansion to better our community?
Jon Prescott - We’ve already started in Pawnee Rock. Three months ago, I formed a committee of six individuals in that area and we’ve applied for a grant to start cleaning up that town and get them back to what it was when we were kids. We’re applying for a Community Development Block Grant. We’ve also had meetings with the State Historic Preservation Office.
In Ellinwood, they are working on a project because housing is huge and daycare is a huge challenge. So we’ve got housing opportunities in Ellinwood. There’s some development going on.
Great Bend’s got a ton of lots, Why aren’t those lots selling and why isn’t construction starting?
(He also encouraged folks to read up on the Housing Opportunities Inc. Cambridge Park development proposal.)
Tricia Schlessiger - The current relationship and structure with Great Bend Economic Development was well thought out and Sara Hayden is an amazing leader there. She’s a great asset to our community. Opening that up to the entire county was a huge step in the right direction.
There is no single way to solve the housing shortage in Barton County right now. (Any solution) has to be a data-driven approach. We have information that says we don’t need any more low-income housing. We need more moderate-income housing.
We’re facing an unprecedented surge in housing demand. There are some ideas that could be explored. St. John partnered with Kansas State University and it’s building 10 energy-efficient houses. Following the data has led to the creation of 59 new daycare spots, and the new daycare is a step in the right direction.
Rick Davis - Utilizing the relationship with Great Bend Economic Development is going to be great for Barton County. But it doesn’t stop there. Any related party will have an open invitation to call me any time.
(Davis mentioned his real estate experience as the Chief Operations Officer of MPIRE Properties and MPIRE Improvements. He questioned the reliability of housing studies.)
Nobody’s ever called MPIRE in the last decade to ask if we were 100% occupied or half occupied or anything else. So, I know how those housing studies work. (They can be) from developers that want to make some money on our community; we’ve got to be very careful and diligent to not let that happen. I agree that Barton County probably has enough low-income housing, or close to it. I think we need to start investing in some moderate-income housing.
I will always offer my knowledge of any housing, childcare ideas and business expansion ideas to the forefront of the Board of County Commission meetings.
Donna Zimmerman - Housing and daycare are critical issues. I feel they’re mostly functions of the private sector. But I wholeheartedly understand the need to support housing, particularly business expansion, through existing tax relief mechanisms, such as the Economic Development Industrial Revenue Bond tax exemptions through the Department of Commerce, and the newly implemented county-wide Neighborhood Revitalization plan.
I agree with developing that relationship with Economic Development to be visionaries and to look for new ideas and things that can better our housing, childcare and recruit businesses is optimal. If elected, I would embrace the opportunity to work closely with the Economic Development board and I would work to ensure county resources are available to help seek funding, grants and programs to support these initiatives.
As we all know, property taxes are a serious concern for all property owners. What is your philosophy on taxation and ways to attract future residents?
Jon Prescott - It’s all about growth, and it’s growing the tax base. To give you an idea, for every $225,000 home that’s built, it raises $4,500 a year in property taxes to give us the opportunity to increase revenue and keep property taxes down.
The projects that are in play right now, the daycare, the other housing, lots that are being developed, are going to bring people in. We need to invite people to Barton County. We also need to be recruiting companies that pay a good wage, so these people can afford that $200,000 home – and I truly believe that can be done. There are companies out there that are looking to relocate; we need to be more aggressive.
Also, about six weeks ago, the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation announced that the state of Kansas was providing $62 million over the next three years for rural affordable housing. We’re going to be taking advantage of that. That will help folks find middle-income housing that people have been talking about or – even better yet – a little better housing.
Tricia Schlessiger - I look at this question slightly differently than Jon. As a Barton County commissioner, my main underlying philosophy on taxation is to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars. These dollars are what you earned and you entrusted them to the commission. You’ve entrusted commissioners to make decisions about how to spend those dollars. I want to be your voice. I would listen to my constituents.
I think the county commission should stay revenue neutral and make budget cuts as needed to stay within the current mill levy.
I also understand that the mill levy is just one component. Another component is property valuation; a decrease in valuation, i.e. possibly taking properties off the tax roll, will increase the burden on the remaining people paying taxes. Commissioners have to closely scrutinize any request to remove property from the tax base.
We currently have a large list of organizations that are exempt from paying almost $10 million in annual property taxes. Most of these are bona fide exemptions, but every one that gets exempted increases the burden on you. So we have to be very serious about it.
Our growth is important but it has to be funded in the right way. That’s what Economic Development dollars are spent on, not what the county commission does.
The facade grants are a great way to attract future residents. These grants make an immediate and visible improvement to our existing businesses which increases the curb appeal. This is a great example and it also keeps our property rates down to get our foot in the door with new homeowners.
Rick Davis - It feels like we’re all saying the same thing. I don’t think there’s a terrible (candidate) up here to be honest. Control spending and increase the tax base. We all know nobody in here wants to write a check to the county to pay their taxes but we all know we have to. Everything takes money to run, including Barton County, and it’s getting tougher and tougher with this extreme inflation that we have right now.
I agree about the Neighborhood Revitalization grant and the downtown facade grants; how that works is, they improve their building, they get a little break on taxes. But when it comes back off that break, they end up paying a little bit more taxes. It gives them a way to economically fund their projects. All these downtowns are looking better and better with that.
Taking care of our current businesses while providing an incubator-type environment for new businesses is important, too.
Donna Zimmerman - I’ve calculated the mill levies for all taxing entities in Barton County for the past 26 years, and I’ve worked closely with the taxing districts during the budget process. I’ve always been concerned with the property tax burden and will work hard to maintain fiscal responsibility and careful spending.
We’ve heard a lot about growing our tax base and I couldn’t agree more. We must focus on attracting new and expanding existing businesses in order to grow our population.
Attracting residents alone will not lower property taxes significantly. We must also look at business growth. Over the past five years, Barton County has lost 1,260 residents while the city of Great Bend has lost 764. That’s a huge concern. We must work to make our communities the best place to live. This is achieved through economic development, quality education, affordable property taxes and quality of life activities.
How would you address the current issues that our local sheriff has defined regarding food and gas? In your opinion, can the commission help to control the cost of living in our community?
Jon Prescott - Inflation is an issue. The county commissioners haven’t yet announced but will soon be announcing that we are doing our part because we’re reducing the tax, the mill levy by 2.4 mills, and you’ll see that in 2023.
You really can’t (reduce and grow) at the same time. There’s billions of dollars out there in grant money. We need to be more aggressive in finding that so we don’t use your money to fund that growth.
Tricia Schlessiger - The neat thing about Jon and I is we don’t look at questions the same. I come from the banking and farming industry, so I think as a commission, it’s impossible for us to control inflation or the costs associated with it. What is in the commission’s control is how we budget for those things.
Sheriff Bellendir does an awesome job but maybe we need to contract some fuel. Maybe we need to make it part of our budgeting process to take the risk off the table.
Rick Davis - I don’t think the county has direct control over inflation. But I agree that we can control costs.
I’ll (stress) communication and coordination amongst county departments. If somebody’s not contracting fuel together with the county, I think they need to look into that. Maybe then reach out to our cities. I think that’s something to look into.
Whenever possible, we should always spend county dollars in our own county.
Keeping costs low is key in government. When purchasing equipment, maybe it’s a possibility to lease, and maybe look into sharing some equipment sometimes.
Donna Zimmerman - Inflation is at a 40-year high and is pushing double digits. The only real control the commission has is the mill levy. County budgets have remained constant over the past seven to 10 years, with the exception of wage increases for county employees.
The sheriff budgeted for a 52% increase for the price of fuel with an 8% increase across the board for all other expenses including food for the detention center. There are similar increases for fuel for the road and bridge department.
I like the idea of contracting for fuel and expanding that to townships and so forth.
Thankfully, the county commissioners have long understood the need for healthy reserves. The county currently has $8.5 million in reserves to help buffer the impact of our current inflation.