Harvey County has a man with a heart and a head for public service at the helm. County Administrator John Waltner has been in public service for well over three decades and continues to thoroughly enjoy his chosen path.
Harvey County is a half a world away from where Waltner?s story began. The child of missionaries, Waltner was born in India. At the age of 6, he began school at the Woodstock School, a famous international boarding school in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India, about 1500 miles away from where his parents were working.
?There were children from 18 to 20 nationalities? represented at the school, he said. One young man from Waltner?s class would later become the King of Nepal.
Waltner is grateful for the time in India.
?The experience of living in another culture was a gift in many ways.?
In 1956, when Waltner was 10 years old, his family moved to North Newton, and he started school at Santa Fe Middle School. His mother worked at Bethel College, and his father worked for the General Conference Mennonite Headquarters where he would eventually become general secretary of the Conference.
After graduating from Newton High School, Waltner married Mary Jane. They had met in high school. He would first attend Bethel College and then The University of Kansas for graduate school.
?I was going to be a historian,? he said.
He and Mary Jane brought two daughters into the world and begin their professional lives. Waltner was first drawn to teaching. He entered the Urban Teacher core program at Wichita State. He then taught school in Burrton for a few years before landing in Hesston where he taught high school social studies for many years.
In addition to teaching, Waltner was drawn to serve the local government, and he was elected as Hesston?s mayor in 1985. He served as mayor for 25 years and was in office in March of 1990, when ?The Hesston Tornado,? tore through Harvey County devastating parts of the town.
He remembered the time immediately after the storm as ?very challenging ? but more than anything ? it reinforced my sense of how important it is to be engaged in local government.?
The city was fortunate; there were no fatalities and no major injuries within the city limits. The cleanup and rebuilding were difficult.
But Waltner emphasied, ?A lot of significant things can be done to help communities get back on their feet,? after a devastating event. He is grateful the community had enough warning that the storm was approaching and that people did what they were supposed to do ? ?take cover.?
In 2001, he went to work for Harvey County as the special projects director. Through this position, he worked closely with County Administrator Craig Simmons and other county officials. Although, he had ?thoroughly enjoyed teaching,? he was becoming more and more interested in local government. He believes ?local government is the government that affects the quality of peoples lives more than any other.?
He worked alongside Simmons for nearly a decade before Simmons retired in December 2009, and Waltner was slated to take over.
Waltner has numerous challenges as the county administrator. Revenue is a huge aspect of his job
?Funding programs is a problem,? he said. ?It is always a challenge, always has been, always will be. Because in local government, we function because we take people?s money in the form of taxes.?
The real challenge that stems from this is ?to make sure people understand they are getting good service for the money we take from them.?
And funds are spread thin these days.
?When I started working as special projects director for the county, we could do a road for $34-35,000 a mile.?
That same mile of road costs $125,000 today.
Maintaining the county?s infrastructure is an enormous job. There are 165 miles of blacktop roadways that the county must maintain and 282 structures, ?defined as bridges,? the county is responsible for maintaining. Many of those structures are ageing, and some have already had to be closed. This will continue to be a challenge.
Waltner is proud of the work he has been able to do with the county departments.
?I wanted employees to think more clearly about themselves as being county employees instead of individual departments,? Waltner said.
He has strived to put a ?focus on mission core values and core competencies? for each department.
?It has been an interesting challenge, but people have been very supportive, allowing us to do things that allow us to think of the entire organization as a whole.?
The county continues to move forward with Waltner leading the way. He is excited about the positive impact technology is having on the way the county runs. The addition of Anthony Swartzendruber as an assistant county administrator has been key to the county?s development and use of technology.
Another big project has been the work being done at the courthouse. Anyone who has been to the courthouse in the past several months cannot help but notice the grand scale of this project.
?This building is nearly 50 years old,? Waltner said. ?We have a building here that belongs to the people of Harvey County, and it is our responsibility to safeguard it.?
A lot of deferred maintenance is finally getting done, and as a result, the building will be much more efficient. The county is installing a geothermal system and making many other energy and resource saving changes that will save the county money for years to come.
When asked about this future retirement plans, Waltner smiled and said, ?I have not set a date.? Many of his friends have retired and he admitted, ?there are a lot of things in the world I want to do.?
He would like to travel, but he is not quite ready to move on yet. In fact, even in retirement he does not see himself walking away from public service completely. He has been very involved REAP (The Regional Economic Area Partnership) and hopes to continue to promote and support the organization.
?I want people to understand their destinies are tied to the health of the region,? and REAP works to create a vision for economic development in southcentral Kansas.
Waltner unquestionably loves his work and will continue to serve the people of Harvey County as long as he is able.
by Kelley DeGraffenreid