In the City of Great Bend’s ongoing campaign to sell its trio of sales taxes on the Nov. 2 general election ballot to voters, City Administrator Kendal Francis Tuesday night hosted the first of two City Hall meetings on the initiatives. The second takes place from 7:30-8:30 a.m. Wednesday, at City Hall, 1209 Williams.
“This is about getting accurate information out to the public,” Francis said. “We want to dispel any rumors.”
A handful of residents filtered into the City Council chamber for the session. The event was also viewed live on Facebook.
These proposed taxes include:
• .10%- debt service construction of a new police station with a 20-year sunset. The estimated revenue comes to $377,752 per year.
The estimated $5.8 million, 19-21,000-square-foot facility at 12th and Baker on what is now a city parking lot and will also house the Municipal Court.
The estimated construction cost is in the neighborhood of $6.3 million, with the city having about $1.5 million set aside for the project. Twenty-year bonds would be sought to fund the balance at an interest rate of around 2%.
• .15% - quality of life improvements with no sunset. The estimated revenue comes to $566,628 per year.
This covers improvements to parks and other recreational facilities, as well as maintenance and city events.
• .20% - pension for public safety personnel (police and fire) with no sunset. The estimated revenue comes to $755,504 per year.
There has been some confusion with a few residents thinking the city is raising property taxes, and Francis stressed this is not the case. A sales tax is charged on all purchased goods and services in the city, and is paid residents and non-residents alike.
“It puts a small hit on your finances,” he said. “But, it is the most equitable way to do it.”
If approved, the trio of taxes would go into effect April 1, 2022.
The .45% total for all three would the city’s sales tax rate from 8.25% to 8.70%. This is still in the middle of the pack compared to similar cities, Francis said.
“It does not put us at a competitive disadvantage with our sister cities,” he said.
“There are several reasons why we believe we need a new Police Station, Francis said. The current location was built in 1938 and originally housed both fire and police departments.
But now, the 8,000-square-foot building is fails to meet the needs of a modern police department. Besides being too small: The heating, air conditioning and electrical systems need upgrading; its not handicapped accessible; and it lacks space for interviews, training, meeting and evidence storage.
The city has been planning for several years to build a new facility, Francis said. They have set aside money aside and have saved $1.5 million.
But, they can’t set funds aside fast enough for what is estimated to be a $6 million endeavor, he said. So, they must seek bonds, or borrow about $5 million, to pay for it.
To put that in prospective, he said this would equal 10 cents on every $100 spent by a consumer. It would generate around $378,000 each year.
Francis said they want to do this now to take advantage of low interest rates and beat anticipated COVID-related construction cost increases.
They hope to have an artist’s rendition by week’s end.
While they are looking at all funding options, he said they can’t tap COVID stimulus money for the building. It might be possible to use it for things like technology for the inside.
In a work session Monday night, the council looked in depth at the project. Council members took a long look at balancing the size of the station with the cost and needs of the department.
Original construction costs were estimated at about $285 per square foot. However costs are now at $340, adding roughly $1 million to the price of what was originally envisioned.
However, the council’s consensus Monday night was bullish, and members didn’t want to skimp now and risk ruing going smaller years down the road. They were convinced even the higher cost was feasible within the scope of the sales tax as the city taps other funding, such as COVID-19 relief money, to help offset the difference.
The city is working with Wichita-based McCown-Gordon Construction to provide construction manager services for the project. Basically, a construction manager coordinates the bidding and the construction process.
In other words, once the trigger is pulled, there will be a set guaranteed maximum cost for the building. The construction manager would absorb the loss should it go over that and refund the difference should it be lower.
Wichita’s GLMV Architects is handling the station’s design work.
As for the existing station, the plans are under discussion, but no decision has been made.
Francis was asked about the use of the former JC Penney building at Broadway and Kansas as the station. It was considered.
Mayor Cody Schmidt formed a citizens committed to study locations, but this committee was formed after the structure had sold. Besides, it was too large and outdated, making it cost prohibitive.
They also looked at other existing buildings and sites. But, they settled on the 12th and Baker location since it was already owned by the city.
Quality of Life
“I know your asking what quality of life means,” Francis said. The question was worded broadly on purpose.
“These are the types of amenities that make Great Bend great,” he said. From improving existing facilities to building new ones to maintenance, “the sky’s the limit.”
It could also involve community events, he said.
The tax translates into 15 cents for every $100 spent, and would bring in about $565,000 annually.
The city will form a citizens’ committee to make recommendations to the City Council, he said. This group will come up with a long-term improvement plan.
“We want transparency. We want community input,” Francis said. They want to harness the creativity and dreams of residents to make the city better.
And, he said, the better the quality of life here, the more people Great Bend will attract. “We have a very positive future.”
First responder retirement
Currently, the city provides a 401K retirement plan for all employees, including policemen and firefighters, Francis said. However, “first responder retirement needs are unique” with more limitations on how long they can work.
So, to improve this, the city seeks a .20% sales tax. This comes to 20 cents on every $100 spent, raising an estimated $755,000 each year with no sunset.
A final determination on what this new plan will be has not been made. But, there have been a couple of options discussed, one of which has raised some red flags with council members.
The present plan are with Mission Square Retirement, a non-profit corporation providing public sector retirement plans. The city is not a part of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, although for the past several years, the city has upped the city’s contributions to Mission Square to better align with KPERS.
One option is to use the sales tax to further bolster the current plan or some version of it.
The second is to move to KPERS for first responders only.
Under KPERS is Kansas Police and Fire, which is specifically for uniformed firefighters and police officers. Great Bend is one of four cities in Kansas not using KPF, which is seen as the industry standard.
Police officers and firefighters say this would make the departments more competitive and help eliminate the rapid turnover that plagues both, Francis said. It also offers a guaranteed pension for retirees.
Some on the council find this fraught and have voiced concerns. They fear potential ramifications for taxpayers.
Making the change would be more expensive, about $550,000 per year, Francis said. This is the equivalent of 6 mills in property taxes.
The sales tax is enough to cover the cost for a few years, but it was noted that the cost will increase annually to nearly $850,000 by 2033, and possibly more.
Ward 2 Councilwoman Jolene Biggs, who was attending the meeting, said the KPF plan could be $1 million underfunded in 10 years (which equals about 10 mills) and $2 in 20 years.
The council fears this will still force the city to raise property taxes to meet the need.
“A decision has not been made,” Francis said. “The City Council still has some difficult decisions to make.”
But, Francis said he and the council are committed to providing the current level of quality police and fire services while being fiscally responsible.