With the dew-coated grass made vibrant green by recent rains, the lush Heizer Park was the backdrop for the Kendal’s Koffee Friday morning. Great Bend City Administrator Kendal Francis used the informal gathering to highlight improvements to the park in the southeast part of town as well as other issues in the city.
“It’s great to be outside and doing this face to face,” he said, noting the event was also being streamed live on Facebook. The crowd, some wearing face masks, remained socially distant, the norm for this COVID-19 pandemic era.
Some stood and some sat in bag chairs. Coffee and doughnuts were on the menu.
“There is a specific reason I chose Heizer Park,” he said of the facility at Eighth and Heizer streets that serves an area with a large Hispanic influence. In fact, Francis was flanked by his interpreter Venessa Favela who translated his remarks into Spanish.
“The city wants to make an effort to improve it for the community,” he said. “There is a plan in place to make some immediate improvements.”
Already, a new handicapped-accessible swing has been installed in the playground and there are new soccer goals on what is now a baseball field. They are considering re-purposing the ball diamond and the sand volleyball court into practice soccer fields, and expanding the picnic area to accommodate larger gatherings.
“We’re putting together a neighborhood survey to find the preferred use of the park,” Francis said. More information about this will be available in a week or two.
There are issues that have to be overcome, he said. They are working with a turf expert to rid the grass of stickers and are trying to find a way to provide free WiFi for area.
But, the park was not the only topic discussed. Francis addressed a host of questions submitted in advance as well from the audience.
Some of these included:
• COVID-19. “We are requiring masks in all city-controlled facilities,” he said, adding they made tough call to cancel the annual Party in the Park this year.
Also, he noted the Barton County Commission would consider a resolution Monday morning that would allow Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order mandating face masks in most settings to take effect here. The commission had previously voted to opt out of the order.
• Utility rate increases. Francis said the city hired a consultant to do a survey of water and sewer rates. “It showed rates needed to be increased to meet expenditures.”
They are looking at a 22% increase for water with an additional 3% per year for the next four years. This would take the base water rate from $10.12 to $12.35.
The sewer hike would be 33% with the same four-year adjustment. The base sewer rate would go from $7.54 to $10.03.
The council will vote on this proposal when it meets Monday, Aug. 17.
• The city budget. Due to the pandemic, “it was a bit of a challenging fiscal year for us,” he said.
Although the city’s valuation fell $2.3 million and some expenditures were cut, the budget didn’t require a mill levy increase. A budget hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 17, at City Hall.
• Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) funding program to help offset pandemic-related expenses. Funneled through the state, this federal funding is part of $400 million being distributed statewide in round-one Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) relief.
Barton County received $5.2 million and was charged with allocating it to local governments with Great Bend receiving $862,000, he said. The funds will be paid as reimbursements for COVID response efforts.
The city will use its share to cover the costs of personal protective equipment and help with salaries of staff who deal with the virus, such as Emergency Medical Services.
• The city’s sale tax collections were up 5.6% over last year. “That shows me people are shopping locally,” Francis said.
• Code enforcement. The city’s Code Enforcement and Property Maintenance Enforcement departments are now combined, he said. Along with this, guidelines covering yard and trash violations are more strict.
The City Council has made this a priority, he said. “The aesthetics of our community are important to our success.”
• Streets. The city taps two sales taxes to pay for street improvements and budgets $700,000 annually for these projects.
Francis said he realizes there are areas of concern in all neighborhoods. They are working on a master plan to prioritize these needs.
• Hispanic outreach. He said the city is trying to make sure all of its communications are in both English and Spanish and encourages bilingual job applicants.
There are also economic development efforts to engage Hispanic business owners.
• Community involvement. “There are several ways to volunteer,” he said of how citizens can be active in the community. There are numerous city boards as well as the City Council.
• Civic improvements. Francis noted the new bison exhibit at Brit Spaugh Zoo, new lighting coming to the ball fields at Veterans Memorial Park, the remodeling of offices at the Events Center, the rebuilding of the Sunflower Rod and Custom Association dragstrip and planned traffic barriers to prevent illegal turning into McDonalds from west-bound 10th Street traffic.