Manhattan City Commissioners clashed Tuesday while discussing the beginnings of a plan to recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Usha Reddi raised the idea of forming a recovery task force during the Commission’s bi-weekly legislative session held via Zoom.
While the planning is in early stages, Reddi proposed involving Manhattan City representation as well as USD 383, the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, Kansas State University and other area colleges, Fort Riley in addition to health officials to discuss how to phase in re-opening the economy — but says Manhattan will need to follow guidelines from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Centers for Disease Control in order to re-open. Some of those items include increased testing capacity, decreasing numbers of cases for 14 days and an adequate number of people to contact trace.
“Whatever that looks like, social distancing is going to be a huge part of it,” says Reddi. “We can’t throw that out the window tomorrow or even in another year until we have a vaccine that works.”
Commissioner Mark Hatesohl told Reddi to stop saying there’s no treatment, mentioning that studies have shown anti-malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are effective to help COVID-19 patients. Hatesohl further said 98 percent of people don’t die from the virus and that a diagnosis isn’t a death sentence while advocating for re-opening the economy.
“Stop […] acting like people are doomed if they get this disease,” says Hatesohl. “I’m almost to the point where it’s like let’s everybody get the damn thing and get it over with so we have the immunity so we can get back to living.”
“We’ve got to do stuff before we get a vaccine — we haven’t had a vaccine for SARS or HIV and AIDS, there’s still no vaccine for that and that’s been around for 20 years,” says Hatesohl. “You can’t go through life staying six feet away from everybody so you don’t get a version of the cold, for the most part.”
Hatesohl also raised doubts about whether the official death rate is accurate, saying those deaths are counted too randomly and that some people who have died without positive tests are included in the numbers.
“This is all too much — that’s why we need to get back to normal because it’s not killing people like they expected, the 2.2 million, so we don’t need to keep doing that because it’s not as dangerous as they said.”
Reddi says she strongly disagrees, saying “the reason our numbers and everything are so low is because people are staying home. I think –”
“You don’t know that for sure,” Hatesohl responded, adding that among the possible factors contributing to that are that “it may be that people have a better immunity out here in Kansas.”
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook says that there are clusters of exponential growth around the state, though not currently in Riley County. Estabrook says those numbers lead to a plan to re-opening the economy that first requires a 14-day downward trajectory of cases, repeating that that is also the recommendations of federal and state officials.
“That’s why it’s important for us to do and not jump into it,” says Estabrook. “Because we’re never going to get there if we keep having these little bumps all the way through.”
Estabrook also says the goal isn’t full containment, but flattening the curve of the virus’ spread.
“Flattening the curve doesn’t mean that we’re not all eventually going to get sick,” Estabrook says. “It means that we’re not all going to get sick at the same time.”
Estabrook further said it’s not the commission’s business to be giving health advice. Hatesohl responded saying he is a doctor — having founded his Chiropractic Family Health Center in Manhattan in 1984 — and that he continues to study and read health literature. Estabrook followed by saying the drugs Hatesohl mentioned earlier have been found in a study not to be effective.
A National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases panel says there is not enough data to support or negate the effectiveness of those drugs as COVID-19 treatments as study results have been conflicting, and further recommends against using them in tandem due to the possibility of “QTc prolongation in patients with COVID-19” — or the time it takes for the heart to contract and return to rest — increasing the risk of sudden heart death.
“Okay, forget that, but it worked in France and it works other places,” Hatesohl said in response to Estabrook. “But my point is Emporia, Garden City, all those places have meat packing plants, people on top of each other working and stuff like that. While that is vitally important and [an]essential thing, that’s why there’s been big outbreaks in those counties and we don’t have a meat packing plant here.”
“Yeah, but people may come, right?” Estabrook responded. “People may come to come to our restaurants, to our places, right? So that’s how it spreads.”
“And they still won’t die,” Hatesohl says.
Reddi called on the commission to move on from the disagreement.
Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler agreed with the idea of a task force, but wanted to ensure that the group had a wide breadth of opinions and viewpoints at the table.
“We have some people far over that would leave us locked up until the end of August and then Mark is ready to pull the trigger on opening us back up right now,” says Butler. “And we need a good mixture of both those kind of people on that committee so we can look at these numbers and make this happen.”
Butler says the disease is a health nightmare but asserted that he thinks the economic impact of shutting down businesses will overwhelm Manhattan more than the virus if the city stays shut down through August or September.
He further questioned some of the rationale behind closing businesses like Dillards while Target can remain open, saying the government is picking winners and common sense needs to play a role in how they approach re-opening the economy.
“I’m not advocating doing something dumb like, say, let’s open AMC Theaters and put 150 people in the IMAX — probably not a good plan to try that right now,” says Butler. “But let’s get that task force in place and have it publish some things and get a right mixture of people in there.”
Commissioner Linda Morse says she’s fully on board with getting a task force up and running, and encouraged working in tandem with City Manager Ron Fehr and Chamber President and CEO Jason Smith moving forward while keeping health guidelines in mind.
“Lead the way because people are ready,” Morse says.
Reddi says they’ll continue to get the process in the next few days, but won’t work against state and federal guidelines as they do so.
In other COVID-19 updates, Fehr says amid an anticipated $3 million to $8 million budget shortfall they’ve made preparations for around $3.5 million to $4 million in reductions through canceled travel, a hiring freeze and reductions in the city’s operations budget.
“Much like the country’s taken a measured approach to opening back up, we’re trying to take a measured approach to making reductions,” Fehr says.
The next round of cuts, according to Fehr, won’t be across the board salary reductions but furloughs and layoffs of city employees. He says they’re asking much of city staff to work harder than they have previously, and that their first choice wouldn’t be cutting salary.
Reddi says that cuts to EMS, the fire department and police should be a last resort due to their place on the front lines of the pandemic. She further advocated cutting the commission’s travel budget as well as some portion of their salaries as well through Fall or further. City commissioners take home approximately $400 to $500 per month, with the mayor receiving an extra $100 per month — all adding up to about $29,000 per year for the entire commission.
Morse agreed, noting that though the overall amounts allotted to travel and salaries are minimal in the scheme of the city’s revenue shortcomings.
“It is symbolic and it would help the general budget,” says Morse. “Everything helps, every little item.”
Butler responded that he’s glad the commission has finally reached a majority willing to cut their travel budget, something he’s advocated for years amid the city’s plateauing revenue picture prior to the pandemic. Butler, who says he’s donated his salary to local causes since 2011, supported cutting their salaries if it goes somewhere constructive, and says he’d prefer cutting salaries at the top over cutting the base level employees.
“I think we’ve got 30 people at least making over six figures.”
Hatesohl says he’s already taken a 60 percent pay cut due to the impact to his practice, but agreed to forgoing for the immediate future as well.
“While the commission salary is not a big deal and not why anybody got into this gig,” says Hatesohl. “But $400 a month is $400 a month when you’re losing $4,000 to $5,000 a month.”
He also says many of the folks advocating for people to continue staying at home and for businesses to remain shut are not those being impacted by unemployment and other economic hardship as a result of those decisions.
Estabrook, though, was not a big fan of such cuts. He says he lives paycheck to paycheck and that he thinks the income is a larger percentage of his income than many others on the commission. Instead, Estabrook proposed commissioners independently donate their money to a cause of their choice.
“I think this is symbolic and kind of a waste, a little bit,” says Estabrook, though noted that he appreciates the wage he receives. “I will do my best to donate it to causes that are worthy.”
He says he’d rather see a proposal similar to Butler, cutting at top level staff salaries first.
Ultimately, no decision on cutting commissioner salaries was reached, leaning instead toward allowing commissioners to make their own decisions on if and which groups to donate their salaries.
City Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to waive a storm water detention requirement for a development southeast corner of North Manhattan Avenue and Kearney Street.
Instead of constructing a detention structure below the property, developer T.J. Vilkanskas of Back Nine Development will pay a $20,000 fee to contribute to more substantial storm water infrastructure projects.
City Engineer Brian Johnson says the fee is calculated based on square footage and projections of the amount of additional run-off water the development will ship downstream. Johnson says analyses by Wood Consulting finds the detention pond would be insufficient at addressing flooding issues around at the bottom end of the watershed — on Bluemont as well as at 3rd and Kearney.
“If we do the big [capital improvement projects], we drop water surface elevations about 2.02 feet,” says Johnson of the intersection of 11th and Bluemont. “If we detain, we basically don’t gain anything because we’re only detaining that additional water.”
City regulations only require that developers detain water to account for extra run-off resulting from their build-out, not run-off caused upstream and not of their doing. Johnson says that in areas where its determined detention would not reduce flooding issues, Wood instead advised forgoing the detention requirement on developers and extracting a fee that could go toward more effective water level reduction projects.
Commissioners discussed whether the fee was too low and would set a precedent for other developers. Public Works Director Rob Ott says the fee was developed from a formula that could raise or lower costs based on the specific development, and that the goal was to create a repeatable as the city examines altering their storm water policy in the future.
“You can’t make them build something that’s totally stupid based on the fact that it doesn’t meet what the purpose [of the original policy]was,” says Hatesohl.
Morse was the sole opposing vote, saying she supports standing by the current requirements and that this move pokes a hole in their policies and looks to a “pie in the sky policy” that may never come in the future.
In other business, RCPD Director Dennis Butler updated the commission on the latest crime stats, noting drops in all categories.
The county saw an overall 51 percent drop in part 1 crimes compared to a 5-year average through the first two weeks of April, a 9 percent decrease in domestic assault and battery, a 29 percent decrease in calls for service, also noting a 10 percent decrease in vehicle crashes in March and 66 percent drop in April.
Butler says crime decreases like this are to be expected amid major population shifts such as Manhattan and Riley County have experienced.
Additionally, unresolved easement issues have stalled a Riley County Planning Commission decision on the new RCPD firing range for the next 30 days. Butler did not get into more specifics on the specific issues, but says they will continue to have dialogue with residents and work to be a good neighbor on the property.
Butler also says they are prepared to reverse the department’s training procedures while the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center remains closed. They typically send recruits through the academy before doing in-cruiser training with an experienced officer, but may have to flip that as two recruits were three weeks from graduation and two more were set to start but have been delayed. If vacancies continue, Butler says they are prepared to begin only taking applications from already certified officers who have completed their courses at the academy.
Butler further guaranteed that they will present a flat budget to the Riley County Law Enforcement Agency at its next budget session, as well as an option or two for decreases.
The Manhattan Convention and Visitors Bureau reported major drops in all metrics related to travel and tourism.
Director Karen Hibbard says March numbers were nearly halved, with hotel occupancy rates at 38.4 percent compared with 65.2 percent in March of 2019. Eight meetings were canceled in the month, with an estimated economic impact of $1.4 million lost to area businesses.
She says the CVB staff is working to reschedule meetings for later dates as possible. They’ve managed to reschedule 12 meetings planned for March, which have an estimated economic impact of more than $1 million.
Through the end of the year, though, 67 meetings have been canceled or rescheduled, with an estimated economic impact of $12.5 million.
Hibbard also says the decreased numbers in hotels and visiting the city will impact transient guest tax dollars. Fehr estimates Manhattan will only see $1.12 of the budgeted $2.1 million in TGT dollars. Approximately $1.4 million of that goes toward CVB operations, 75 percent of which has not been distributed. Hibbard says they understand fund will be limited, but they are prepared to work with the city and do the best they can with the dollars available.
Hibbard also says the CVB has a reserve fund that is enough to fund their operations for at least 6 months if necessary, which Fehr says they will discuss further with the Chamber. When the CVB returns for their next quarterly report in May, Fehr says staff will provide the commission with funding options for the rest of the year.