A trip to Washington, D.C. May 8-10 by delegates from several western Kansas communities, including Great Bend, yielded new connections and progress on several pressing issues facing the community.
Several officials from Great Bend attended the annual Western Kansas Delegation of Cities in the nation’s capital, along with delegates from Hays, Dodge City, Liberal and Garden City. The trip allows the cities to connect with the state’s Congressional representatives to address both common and unique problems facing each community.
The City of Great Bend was represented by City Administrator Kendal Francis, Mayor Cody Schmidt, city council members Cory Urban and Jolene Biggs, Great Bend Chamber of Commerce President Megan Barfield, Great Bend Economic Development President Sara Hayden, state Rep. Tory Arnberger-Blew, as well as several guests of the officials.
Normally an annual trip, this was the first visit to Washington by local officials since 2019. The trip was canceled in 2020, and was held in Liberal in 2021, both as a result of COVID-19 issues.
“It’s good to get back to Washington and have a presence,” Francis said.
One of the key purposes of the trip each year, Francis said, is to build and strengthen relationships with the state’s federal representatives and staffs, as well as the staffs of several federal departments. Great Bend was the organizer of this year’s delegation.
Building relationships with the staffs of the representatives is crucial when it comes to addressing local issues at the national level.
“You’re not always going to get time with a Senator or the representative,” Francis said. “building those relationships (with staffers is crucial). When you’ve got an issue, I know I can call and they’re going to be responsive.”
It’s also a chance for western Kansas communities to collaborate on common issues, Francis said. “A lot of the same things that we’re facing, they’re facing some of those similar challenges.”
Among those common issues are transportation, immigration, workforce and infrastructure challenges.
“The thing we heard the most from other communities was the need for people as it relates to our workforce issues,” Barfield said. “It’s a common thread in almost every topic discussed.”
One issue the city hoped to address during the trip is the need for federal funding to correct stormwater drainage issues raised by groundwater flooding in recent years.
The problem arose in the spring of 2019 when a particularly wet spring led to several homes in northwest Great Bend flooding. The problem was attributed at the time to the shallow level of the Prairie Aquifer, which lays about 50 feet below the city of Great Bend. The wet spring led to the upper aquifer underneath the city becoming oversaturated, causing groundwater to seep into several homes.
As a result, the city undertook groundwater studies to determine possible solutions, but later pulled the plug on those studies due to the costly nature of the tests.
Francis said long-term drainage and prevention solutions are going to be costly. The city has hoped to seek federal funding, possibly through the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, to address the problem. The city is still dissecting the nuances of the bill for potential opportunities for federal aid in this regard.
The city met with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Hays), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, to address possible grant funding for this and other issues.
Essential Air Service
Another key topic of discussion with all cities was Essential Air Service.
EAS is a program through the U.S. Department of Transportation that gives subsidies to airlines to help keep fares low in smaller communities. The city lost its EAS designation in 2016, when the airline serving Great Bend went bankrupt.
In order for the DOT to maintain this service, the per-passenger subsidy had to be less than $1,000. But, in 2016, this figure was much higher because of the falloff in usage, Francis said.
The city has looked for several pathways back into the program, Francis said.
The current programs allows for larger communities such as Salina to make and document corrections to address flaws and re-enter the EAS program once they have lost the designation. However, the legislation as it is currently written does not offer this pathway for communities the size of Great Bend once they have lost authorization.
Francis sees bringing passenger air service back to Great Bend Municipal Airport as a critical boost for the city, however, and has also sought, and been denied for grants to aid the city in bringing back air service. EAS is the best avenue to make that happen.
However, there is a glimmer of hope.
The EAS program is up for reauthorization in August 2023. When that happens, the city is pushing for language to be added to the legislation that allows smaller cities to have the same EAS re-entry opportunities as larger cities. Other cities across the country are experiencing the same issue as Great Bend and Francis hopes to collaborate with them to bring about proposed changes