Economic development, representation and the pending sales tax ballot question were among multiple topics discussed by Manhattan City Commission candidates at a Sunday Forum.
Eight candidates vying for three seats on the commission took part in the forum, hosted by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Manhattan/Riley County with support from the American Association of University Women, Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce and News Radio KMAN.
Two of the seats have four-year terms while the candidate receiving the third most votes will serve for two. The seats are currently held by Mike Dodson, Jerred McKee and Linda Morse — of whom Morse is the sole incumbent seeking re-election.
Other candidates on the ballot are former USD 383 school board member Aaron Estabrook, former mayor Mark Hatesohl, business analyst Kaleb James, KSU microbiologist Maureen Sheahan, media professional and entertainer Mary Renee Shirk, counselor and pastor Sarah Siders and USDA IT specialist Vincent Tracey.
The election is coming up on November 5th. Listen to the full forum below:
Candidates were asked about economic development and the city’s role in ensuring economic viability.
Estabrook says Manhattan shouldn’t completely focus on recruiting outside businesses to boost the economy, saying the city has plenty of talent here and they need to make it a priority to build up what is already here.
“I kind of think and joke that this is, in my mind, like my 9-year-old daughter asking if she can have friends over — because we want cool people to come — but she hasn’t cleaned her room,” says Estabrook. “So I tell her clean your room and I think we need to clean our city and […] in the next decade we can be one of the best places to be in the entire Midwest. We can be a silicon prairie, we’re not ready for that, we have to take care of those things today.”
Hatesohl says they have to make it easier to get into and stay in business in Manhattan, adding they have to be careful not to unintentionally increase costs to both companies and residents.
“I think the city’s responsibility is we gotta be able to keep some money or have some money on hand for potential new employers or if some local employer wants to expand and especially for things like some kind of an infrastructure improvement,” says Hatesohl. “That’s one of those things that we would not probably have budgeted but if they needed a rail spur or a 4-lane highway that goes half a mile or something — those might be the kind of things that would be nice to have some economic development money sitting there waiting for some kind of a use instead of saying we can’t afford that and now you’re out of business.”
James says EcoDevo funds need to help pay down the city debt, increase the quality of life for current residents such as by using them to build the Douglass Recreation Center and entice businesses to create jobs that pay well with benefits.
“It’s one thing to make $15 per hour if you have benefits and it doesn’t come out of that 15, but it’s another thing entirely to have to take your benefits out of that $15 per hour,” says James. “So we need to be very introspective when we look at where we use economic development funds when it comes to bringing in businesses.”
Morse says the Chamber currently contracts with the city to vet applications for EcoDevo funds, which she says is a good idea as they are more experienced in that realm. She also said she isn’t an advocate for using the money for paying down debt.
“I think economic development needs to be used for future thinking things, and not for looking back — and that’s paying debt down,” says Morse.
Sheahan says if Manhattan is going to give money to bring a business to the city, every job they create must pay enough to ensure people can “live a dignified life.”
“The Chamber of Commerce came and asked for more money and they said if we gave them more money they would bring in 500 jobs, $40,000 per year jobs, over the next five years,” says Sheahan. “My question to them would be how many additional jobs would be minimum wage, part time jobs that put a drain on the rest of the system. It’s not necessarily that we need more jobs, but we need to find ways to increase the pay for the jobs we have.”
Shirk says Manhattan needs to do more to learn from past failures using EcoDevo funds, adding that as much should be spent on supporting local employers as is spent on recruiting new ones.
“Any money the city invests needs to be concrete — it should be infrastructure, it should be solid things that if that business fails we can still use for other businesses,” says Shirk, adding that they should also make sure new jobs pay livable wages and building infrastructure so employees can get to work.
Siders says the economic development should promote prosperity, opportunity and sustainability by making it easier to live, work and play in Manhattan.
“That looks like supporting and promoting not only entrepreneurship, those who are here in the community who might have a business idea, those coming in from the outside who might want to bring their business here, but also supporting the business community here in Manhattan,” says Siders.
Tracey believes that the fund shouldn’t only be about recruiting new businesses, but also promote existing Manhattan companies and their expansion.
“And to help them to be able to provide the benefits their workers need in order to stay here,” says Tracey. “If we’re not providing those benefits as part of their pay, we’re not developing a good economic background to keep Manhattan viable.”
Candidates were asked whether they believe local government is representative of the community and how they can support and enhance citizen engagement.
Estabrook says he doesn’t think it is representative of Manhattan, noting that they don’t have any current commissioners that are young parents.
“The problems that involve childcare and affordability are things that are being tackled by USD383 and the early learning communities and that partnership is essential,” says Estabrook. ” Bringing that knowledge onto the commission is something that is in need.”
Hatesohl says apathy is a big problem in the city, noting that many people he spoke to were unaware of the upcoming election. He posed the idea of breaking the city into precincts instead of all commission positions being at-large.
“Divide the city up into five locations and have people run from each one so there’s better geographical representation,” says Hatesohl. “Which might make for better socio-economic representation also.”
James says the commission is “absolutely not” representative of the community at-large, saying that representatives aren’t keeping their word on issues like housing affordability and funding for the Douglass Recreation Center.
“That whole brown community, when I went out there to pass out handouts and door hangers, everyone was telling me ‘well, I guess we’ll see; maybe we’ll get something; I don’t think it’s going to happen; they don’t care about us,’ — that’s the perception,” says James. “You want to know why they’re not voting? They voted people in who said they believe in equality and those same people didn’t care about them when it was time.”
Morse noted that she was the first commissioner elected to the Northview neighborhood and while she advocates for the area she sees herself as a representative for the whole city. She also reaffirmed her support for the Douglass Rec. Center, saying she’ll help build it at the first opportunity that arrives.
“We need people to come to meetings. I hear people complain that ‘our neighborhood didn’t get a say in this’,” says Morse. “But nobody came to the city commission when we were in our budget session — five different meetings.”
Sheahan is a resident of SoPo, the south of Poyntz neighborhood. She notes that her part of town has 9 years lower life expectancy and one third of the income of adjacent neighborhoods, and that she hopes to provide representation for that area of Manhattan on the commission.
“I’m really impressed with the Northview Rising group and depending on how t hings go in November, I’m going to try to work on getting a SoPo neighborhood organization going so that our voices are heard more succintly,” says Sheahan.
Shirk says running for office made it clearer to her that the city government is set up to shut out the people they aim to represent. She says she was told she needed to raise $8,000 to $14,000 and to ask her friends and neighbors for donations — which she says they cannot afford.
“They’re not coming to meetings at 7 p.m. because they’re students who have class all day and wait tables at Olive Garden in the evening and then don’t have ATA bus to get them home so they can’t go to the meetings to tell you they don’t have ATA bus because they’re at work,” says Shirk. “Or because both parents work and 7 p.m. is when you bathe and wrestle the kids to get them in bed.”
Siders says the city is doing a good job at trying to step up engagement, but Manhattan needs to take intentional steps to hear marginalized, minority and low income voices as well as provide more communication in Spanish for the growing Latino population.
“Minority representation does not happen by accident, it must be intentional,” says Siders. “So I think that participatory budgeting where a portion of money is set aside for people in a neighborhood or group is one way that we can consider engaging with people.”
Tracey says that some representatives have been trying to improve how representative they are, but more improvements are possible.
“We have to get out and get to those people who have got a more diverse background,” says Tracey. “My wife was Korean, she had a difficult time trying to follow along with the television because we talk too fast and it’s hard for people who don’t have English as a first language to be able to translate it and understand what’s going on.”
Candidates were also asked about their position on the proposed 0.3 percent sales tax increase. The tax would generate more than $90 million over 30 years, which could pay for multiple major projects the city has lined up including Aggieville redevelopment and the North Campus Corridor improvements.
Estabrook says while having more funds to work with would make the commission’s job easier, he’s not running to make his life easier and it’s up to the voters to decide.
“You are the boss,” says Estabrook. “If you decide we don’t want this sales tax, it’s my job to figure out how we do things to make it work within those parameters.”
Hatesohl says it’s hard to swallow and he would prefer the tax have a sunset. He proposed to do the most important projects — the levee and the airport improvements — first, and then identify grants and other forms of revenue for the other projects.
“It just seems like if it’s a 30 year plan, we can’t wait 30 years for all these projects if they’re that important today,” says Hatesohl. “I’d like us to make it a 10 year thing and then in 10 more years if the voters are satisfied that we made progress on the list then we can renew it again.”
James shared similar issues with the time frame, but also that there is no guarantee that the money will be reserved for any of the projects as such earmarks are not permitted for permanent sales taxes.
“The next commission can get in there and spend that money on whatever they want because there is no guarantee that this money is going to get spent on these six things,” James says. “The only reason I would be against this is there is no accountability tied to it. How do we hold people accountable for something they never said they would do — just something they said they could do if they wanted to.”
Morse supports the sales tax as opposed to putting any of the projects on property tax, saying it’s a pretty marginal increase and that Manhattan is middle of the road in the state in terms of sales tax.
“I think that these projects are essential, we have to do this levee, we have to do this airport runway and I’m committed to doing the Douglass Center,” says Morse. “My lowest priority is the maintenance building that’s a million dollars.”
Sheahan says while there are multiple important projects that sales tax increase would fund, she opposes it because it is regressive, affecting low income individuals the most.
“The people who don’t have a dollar to save at the end of the month aren’t going to have more stuff at the end of the month,” says Sheahan. “They’re going to pay the same amount of money and end up with less groceries at the end of the month.”
Shirk questioned that if the projects are so important, why hadn’t the city been saving in preparation for them in advance?
“I’m voting no until the commission can commit to projects and until they can tell me their planning on how to replace the runway the next time the runway needs to be replaced,” says Shirk. “I’m tired of feeling like we commit to projects and then I feel like as a taxpayer I’m told now we must pay for them.”
Siders says the tax would fund important and catalytic projects, but expressed concern about its regressive nature and its permanence.
“But I think that it’s important for us as city members and voters to hold ourselves and the city commission accountable for the choices that we make with this money,” says Siders.
Tracey also wasn’t a fan of the lack of sunset on the tax and its impact on the lower income population, also noting that there is no guarantee that the mill levy won’t continue to rise even if the voters accept the sales tax. He says the commission has to be willing to say stop.
“If I get elected to the commission, one of the first things I’m going to ask the rest of the commission and the city to do is go to the legislature and say hey, let’s modify your taxes so that people don’t have to pay taxes on food,” says Tracey. “That way, they’ll have more money out of the limited funds they get — not having to choose do I pay this pay period for rent and utilities or do I buy food for my family.”