Manhattan not open to closing 2 pools in ’21 amid funding gap

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As Manhattan officials look to make up a $2.7 million funding gap for fiscal year 2021, commissioners want to ensure Parks and Recreation doesn’t take the lion’s share of the burden.
City administration presented budget options highlighted by $1.2 million in fund transfers, $1.3 million in Parks and Rec cuts and other cost reductions. Those cuts would have closed CiCo and Northview pools in 2021, reduced hours at City Pool, cut nearly half of city mowing operations, and reduced park maintenance to the point some play equipment would be removed instead of replaced as it degrades. Shifting from public to private support for athletics programs, the municipal band and activities for residents 50 and older were also raised as a possibility.
“A shift could occur where we become more committed to that facility rental versus accommodating all those needs associated with those programs,” says Deputy City Manager Jason Hilgers, noting they provide scorekeepers, umpires and referees for numerous groups — not the case in every city.
Transfer possibilities were contained to Manhattan’s 4 largest funds, with options for even or more strategic transfers from each.
Hilgers says their approach was to identify targeted cuts from services and programs that are the most “in the red,” also noting the department makes up around one third of the city’s general fund, 700 to 800 seasonal employees are hired within P&R throughout the year and a lot of labor goes into getting pools ready for the season’s start.
“Some don’t generate any revenue to offset the cost to implement the program,” he says.
The city subsidizes P&R programs to the value of $6.9 million per year. The identified cuts would have reduced unrecovered costs to $5.6 million per year.
Hilgers reiterated previous comments on the state of city employment, noting that flat and dipping revenues over the past 4 years (now compounded by COVID-19’s impact) have led to numerous years of internal cuts that have stressed their ability to fulfill its obligations. Targeted cuts were in-part an attempt to keep other struggling departments whole amid under-staffing concerns, high turnover, and an inability to upgrade technology.
“[W]e’ve been sent a message as management that if we continue to do this, this isn’t an environment that people want to be in,” says Hilgers. “Even amid COVID-19 I know some very qualified and hard-working individuals that are being recruited out of here and we don’t want to lose them.”
Commissioners, though, could not stomach honing the cuts in solely on P&R. Numerous emails submitted for public comment also called for a different approach. There was little interest in reducing playground equipment among commissioners and Mayor Usha Reddi says re-opening the pools is non-negotiable.
“I do think maybe we need to raise the fees a little bit,” says Reddi. “The evening twilight pool hours may be non-existent, we may need to see what we want to do with that.”
Mayor Pro Tem Wynn Butler says closing pools for two years straight “won’t fly.”
“We passed sales taxes and all kinds of things to build those pools,” says Butler. “When people talk about quality of life and why do you want to move into Manhattan, closing up the pools isn’t going to do it.”
Instead of fully closing the pools, Butler proposed closing portions like the wave pool while leaving the main pool open — reducing lifeguard staffing needs, which Commissioner Mark Hatesohl also expressed interest in exploring. Butler also proposed cutting Flint Hills Discovery Center travelling displays as well as on funding for outside agencies, the Manhattan Public Library, the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce as well as privatizing the city’s pet licensing service.
“Outsourcing is the way to go, but not if it costs us more money,” says Butler. “If it takes customer service people out of a task, that’s a plus for you because they’re overworked. And if it breaks even or makes more money, then what harm is it to outsource?”
Reddi, though, says she’s hesitant to privatize programs as the profit motive may raise costs to an exclusionary level.
“Some people may not be able to afford it,” says Reddi “The city programs we usually have are accessible to a wide variety of folks.”
Reddi, previously against across the board cuts, says she could support 1 or 2 percent cuts across the board given the city’s financial situation. Commissioner Linda Morse echoed that.
“I think everything’s on the table, that’s all I’m trying to say,” she says. “I’m not advocating for it, it just has to be part of the picture.”
She and Commissioner Mark Hatesohl questioned whether slowing planned projects could help finances, though Hilgers noted debt service for projects doesn’t hit the budget for 4 years — any cuts in projects this year won’t have a financial impact until 2024.
In light of the next year’s situation, Hatesohl proposed a three-tier approach to 2021’s budget. Just due to cyclical scheduling, the city is responsible for an additional pay period this year to the tune of $680,000 in general fund dollars. Hatesohl proposed using a one year property tax increase to cover one third of the ’21 gap — which Riley County did in fiscal year 2020 — cover another third with more spread out cuts and one third from fund transfers.
“We could do more with the economic development fund and a little bit from the water but leave storm water alone — wastewater doesn’t look like it’s got a lot of extra in it,” says Hatesohl, noting it might be a question between higher water rates or higher property taxes.
Butler reiterated past opposition to using any street or utility funds to shore up the budget, saying that adds to the tens of millions in capital improvement projects backlogged and other utility needs down the line.
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook questioned whether some reduction in snow plowing could provide some financial relief to the benefit of P&R. He also added he’d prefer to look at various cuts to memberships and subscriptions, such as to groups like the National League of Cities, as well as to higher end staff salaries.
“I’d like to see all of that before I’m going to consider […] raising the property tax,” says Estabrook. “There’s other things we can cut.”
Manhattan has another budget meeting slated for July 14, during which commissioners will hear from the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau and take a look at the state of the city’s economic development fund. Final budget approval is planned for August 18.
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Nick McNamara

Local government reporter, sometimes host/producer of the KMAN Morning Show. 2017 Long Beach State graduate in Journalism/Native American cultures. Los Angeles County born and raised. Nick can be reached at Nick@1350KMAN.com.

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