Purchase sheds light on priorities

Elected officials went down the line, acknowledging that their constituents didn’t want them to do something, and then did it anyway.

That’s how it gets done in Washington, D.C. Why not Newton?

While multiple commissioners noted that they repeatedly heard from residents not to purchase more land, all seven voted unanimously to pay $265,000 for 40 more acres to expand the Kansas Logistics Park.

Them going against voters’ wishes either makes a strong argument for the decision or really calls into question how effective our democratic process is.

City Manager Bob Myers, Mayor Barth Hague, Commissioner Glen Davis and Commissioner Kathy Valentine, those who spoke in favor of the purchase, did make some good arguments as to why the real estate would be valuable to the industrial park.

It’s on a rail line on First Street. It has close access to Highway 50. The additional land could make the park attractive to industry that needs a large plot of land.

Myers said the city has offered to buy the land in the past and make it available for prospects to the park. They haven’t had any takers on it, but some day in the future, maybe they will. The price for the land came down about $1,400 an acre compared to pricing in the past.

Myers said the reason for buying the land was because of its good location and because the owner was motivated to sell it by the end of the year.

We’re not going to say it was a bad move made by the city, as a lot of people, frustrated with some of the city’s land buying practices, will.

However, we’d like to point out a few observations regarding this decision.

One: city government really likes motivated sellers and bargains. In the past, when the city spent $450,000 to purchase the site of the new police station that hasn’t been constructed, the land being cheaper than expected and having a motivated seller were listed as motivating factors for the purchase.

That’s the same reason given for this current purchase.

The other larger point is the decision shows what we prioritize as a city government.

When the city needed funding for the unbudgeted and unexpected purchase, funds quickly appeared. Myers said they could use a land sale and $200,000 worth of sales tax allocated for economic development to make the purchase happen. The city commission voted, and it was done.

At the same meeting where the city approved the land purchase, commissioners spent a long debate over providing an additional $10,000 to the Newton Senior Center which it already budgeted for. It was a debate that needed to be had, however, the debate illustrates a point.

Over and over and over at nearly every budgeting meeting, commissioners are fond of talking about tightening belts or the community somehow raising money to fund things such as a dog park or swimming pool improvements. There’s nothing wrong with that or those ideas. But that approach doesn’t seem to be applied to all projects.

When it comes to allocating additional money to public amenities like a dog park, a senior center, pool repairs, or spraying weeds on downtown sidewalks, city government suggests the people to do the fundraising and pick up the slack.

When it comes to buying more land for the off chance that down the road someone might develop it, after the usual property tax abatement in exchange for a shifting promise of jobs, Newton can easily find the money.

It’s a long-term investment. We get that.

And we’re sure a lot of the working class folks already paying one of the highest sales taxes in the country will be happy knowing that extra penny out of each dollar they spend on food, clothes and gas will fund a real estate purchase that might one day, in 15 years, bring a few jobs to the town and expand the tax base. Perhaps that tax base expansion will enable the city to spend a bit more on services those people actually use.

Davis commented that he hoped a few years down the road people look back at the decision and comment that they thought the commissioners were smart.

We hope so to. We hope they get someone on this land, just like all the other empty land in the industrial park. Perhaps someone is already interested in the property. It’s difficult for us regular folks to know, considering the highly secretive and non-transparent process that is economic development in this region.

That’s always fine when it comes to private enterprise. But it’s highly frustrating when it involves public dollars.

Still, getting to our final point, even if it turns out to be a bad decision, by the time an election comes up, voters will have already forgotten things like that. Incumbents will talk about how they work hard to keep taxes low and how they didn’t agree with whatever decision is unpopular and just think Newton needs to be more aggressive when it comes to economic development.

And people, despite there propensity for complaining, will re-elect them.

Again, we’re not condemning the purchase, and we understand the reasoning behind it. But please keep score at home, folks, so in one or two years you can keep track of who’s talking from which side of their mouth.