For the first time ever, the Great Bend City Council and the Barton County Commission held a joint meeting. They gathered Monday night at the city’s Events Center in a show of unity and discussed a broad range of topics affecting both governing bodies, from COVID-19 to shared projects to budgetary concerns.
The two entities met in the large, main events room to accommodate all the members while allowing for social distancing.
Present were Mayor Cody Schmidt and council members Alan Moeder, Cory Urban, Kevyn Soupiset, Jolene Biggs, Davis Jimenez, Lindsey Krom-Craven and Junior Welch, and commissioners Jennifer Schartz, Chairman Jim Daily, Kirby Krier, Barb Esfeld and Shawn Hutchinson. Also attending were City Administrator Kendal Francis and County Administrator Phil Hathcock, as well as a other city and county officials.
“When I got here, I heard it had not been good,” Francis said of what some saw as sour city-county relations. “But, I don’t know it to have been anything but good.”
He and Hathcock already communicate regularly, and he hopes to have more such meetings in the future.
“It’s in our best interest to work together,” Daily said. “It will mean nothing but positive progress.”
The evening included the commission presenting a commemorative plaque to the council.
As for the discussion, the council and commission members touched on a variety of issues.
Neighborhood Revitalization Plans
The council and commission both offered their consensus to collaborate on a countywide Neighborhood Revitalization Plan. As it stands now, each city in the county has their own plan, but there is none to cover the unincorporated areas.
These are economic development tools that provide a tax rebate incentive for property owners (residential or commercial) to either remodel, repair or build new construction within the covered area. These run for a set number of years with a graduated reduction in the amount of the rebates.
Hathcock said a countywide effort gained steam in the commission. And, since it is the County Appraiser’s Office that handles the program anyway, it just makes sense.
This would streamline the process and make it more uniform. “Now, the problem is that each city does it a little differently,” said Esfeld, who retired as the county appraiser before becoming a commissioner.
It would create more work for county personnel, but it would take a lot of the burden off of city staff, Esfeld said.
All taxing entities in the county (school districts, libraries, Barton Community College and townships) could either opt in or out, she said.
“I know commercially a couple times I’ve seen things built that would not have been built otherwise” because of an NRP, Hutchinson said.
The details still have to be ironed out, but both parties were excited about the prospects.
The portion of SW 40 Avenue between U.S. 56 and West Barton County Road, known as Airport Road, has been in need of repair for years. This is a unique situation in that about 60% of the four-lane road falls in the city and 40% in the county.
“We have tried three times now to get (the Kansas Department of Transportation) grants to resurface that,” Hathcock said. The total price is $800,000 for the resurfacing, and the county has applied for 75-25% cost-share grants.
“We are preparing to reapply,” he said. Maybe we should visit more of a 50-50 or 60-40 split.”
A 50-50 plan would cost the city $220,000 of the $400,000 and the 60-40 would cost $180,000.
“The bottom line is that roads needs to be repaired in a serious way,” Schartz said. “And if we don’t sweeten the deal and make our application stand out and they give us this grant, we’re going to have to pay for it ourselves.”
From a city standpoint, Krom-Craven questioned spending the money on this when there are city streets that need repair as well.
But other council members, as well commissioners, said this road is critical for economic development and is very heavily traveled, for both city and county use.
The application is due April 9.
It was the consensus of the council that the city wanted to help, but it needed time to check into how much the city could afford now. It meets next this coming Monday, April 5.
City and county administrators will continue to discuss the project.
It was noted that 15.4% of all property in the county is tax exempt. This includes all non-profits, including schools and churches.
A request from Sunflower Diversified Services for a tax abatement for its property on West 10th Street brought this tax abatement issue to the fore, Daily said. There was concern that SDS operates a UPS store there, but it is still considered tax exempt.
While this matter was appealed to the state Board of Tax Appeals, there is a broader worry for the county and city from the loss of property tax revenue. But, this must be weighed against the economic development potential of abatements as incentives.
“You don’t want to give away the farm,” Daily said. He just thought it would be good for the city and county “to sing from the same book.”
He suggested a tiered system in which abatements are reduced annually over a period of years.
“So, from an economic development standpoint, we are seeing a lot of communities giving away the farm,” Biggs said. “It makes it very difficult to be competitive.”
She liked the tiered idea.
As for non-profits, there was a fear more property could fall into this category, further reducing revenues. The thought was to seek legislative help from Topeka to help limit what can and can’t be considered tax exempt.
Both bodies agreed this was a problem.
As of last week, a total of 4,839 prime COVID vaccine doses and 3,107 booster doses have been given in Barton County, Hathcock said. This only includes the shots given through the Health Department.
This brings the total to 24.8% of the county adult population being vaccinated.
The county had been using the Fair Board’s Expo III building west of Great Bend for its clinics, but had to move since that will be use for the Farm Show. The city has granted use of Brit Spaugh Park for this week’s clinic.
“We’ve have seen our numbers dwindle on prime doses through our drive-throughs,” he said. “ believe that will probably continue this week.”
Although the state is moving into Phase Five of Gov. Laura Kelly’s vaccination rollout plan, it has been the policy of the county not to turn anybody away regardless of the phase.
And, he said, the commission Monday morning rescinded the mass mandate or any future mandate from the state.
County plaque honors joint meeting
The Barton County Commission Monday night presented a plaque to the Great Bend City Council marking the first-ever joint meeting between the two governing bodies.
The memorial was the brainchild of District 3 Commissioner Shawn Hutchinson who showed it off during the commission meeting Monday morning. “The point of the plaque is that it is just a symbol of the new beginning. It’s a fresh start here, not just because of COVID, but the relations between the county and the city are going to get better. They’re going to be as good as they’ve ever been if I have anything to do with it,” he said.
“That’s part of why I ran for this office,” he said. “I just had the plaque made to commemorate tonight’s event.”
He paid for the commemoration, but when the commission approved presenting it, it also approved reimbursing Hutchinson for the expense.
It reads: “This plaque is to commemorate the joint session of the Great Bend City Council and Barton County Commission. This joint session is graciously hosted by the Great Bend City Council in the newly renovated Events Center on this day, Monday, March 29, 2021.” It includes both the city and county logos, as well as the names of council and commission members and administrators.
“This is great. This is awesome,” District 1 Commissioner Kirby Krier said of the combined meeting. Now, they may look to meet with other city councils throughout the county.
“Something that you don’t see very often is two governing bodies sitting down around the table together and discussing issues and coming up with solutions,” said commission Chairman Jim Daily, District 4. “It is more than just lip service. It is actually getting things done, and it’s certainly about time.”
“I’m excited about this as well as,” said District 2 Commissioner Barb Esfeld. “Meeting together will not only improve the services of the city and Barton County, it quite possibly could save tax dollars in the future.”