By Blake Spurney
NEWTON—Five candidates for the Newton City Commission expressed mostly positive vibes about the direction in which the city had been heading in recent years during a candidate forum held by Harvey County Now on Oct. 6 at the Meridian Center.
Six candidates are running for three seats on the commission. Rebecca Barrett-Fox had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend. She gave a prepared statement that was broadcast to the nearly 70 people who attended. She said she would work “doggedly” to fix high utility bills. She suggested a sliding scale that could increase the amount of money collected. She said she would also work to ensure that Newton was safe and welcoming for everyone and affordable for young professionals.
Barrett-Fox said her background as a researcher who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Kansas would be valuable in helping solve problems in the city. She said she could vote for someone who thought differently and that a commission was stronger when not everyone agreed because it forced people to sharpen their minds to find solutions.
When the question about utility rates was posed to the panel, Eric Thompson said his water bill was expensive and that he would look at tweaking the rates.
Incumbent Kathy Valentine said a surcharge for a sewer expansion project would be coming off the bill in 2026. She said she initially wanted to increase the minimum amount to 300 cubic feet for the monthly base rate of $5.99. However, she said the city would have to find revenue elsewhere if such a change was made.
Lance Gormley, who referred to himself as “the water man,” said he addressed utility bills during an internship. After breaking down the rates, he said he came to understand that the rates weren’t that bad. He said nearby cities would have to go through some growing pains and that Newton was sitting in a good situation.
Incumbent Leroy Koehn said the wastewater portion on residents’ bills would go down 38 percent in 2026. He said he hoped they could bridge the gap until then because of factors like maintenance, inflation and salaries.
Incumbent Rod Kreie said Newton had the highest rates in the region five to six years ago, but now the other cities are catching up. He said one option was to lower the base rate to $5, but then the city would have to increase property taxes by 3 to 4 mills. He said he could argue both sides of that.
When asked for an instance under which candidates might support a tax increase, Kreie said the commission had held the line on taxes. He said the only tax hike he would support would be to raise money for a paved road to the 230-acre tract where GAF Materials Corp. plans on erecting an industrial plant. He said the city certainly would bond the construction project.
Thompson said he would lower taxes to bring back some of the population that decreased between the two most recent censuses.
Valentine said the commission levied 5 mills in 2017 and 3.4 mills in 2018, yet the city still had a $300,000 deficit. She said commissioners had to be careful, because an ordinance requires the city to maintain 15 percent of its budget in the fund balance. She said not doing so could hurt the city’s bond rating. She said the city could be facing a tax increase in the future. She said she didn’t like the sound of it but was being realistic.
Gormley said he was not for raising taxes. He said the days of raising taxes to pay for a debacle were over. He suggested that commissioners get approval of any future tax increases from residents instead of raising the budget for decisions in the past.
Koehn said he would like to make the environment as business-friendly as possible. He said increasing valuations was the way to do that. He said in the off chance the city had to raise taxes for infrastructure for a business, he only would consider doing so if there was a payoff at some point.
Asked to identify the biggest challenge facing the city, Thompson said he would encourage economic development, which in turn would adjust the cost of living. He said Newton needed to get its piece of the pie like other communities he’d seen.
Valentine identified growth, economic development and housing. She said she was excited about what the city had done to attract new businesses. She also noted that plans were in the works to construct 100 duplexes. She said the city needed to always continue looking for ways to improve.
Gormley said the biggest hurdle was trust in government. He said residents needed to know that the city was headed in a positive direction and that elected officials were working for them.
Koehn said the biggest challenge was how residents viewed themselves and their city. He said it was easy to see people complaining on social media. He said the positives were overwhelming and that people needed to encourage their neighbors.
“We can change that perception,” he said. “We’re a great community.”
Kreie said commissioners needed to resist taking a short-term plan that will get them away from their long-term goals. He noted that commissioners received just $200 a month. He said those serving were doing so because they cared. He encouraged residents to get more in the loop so they could understand it’s their Newton.
Candidates gave their views as to what separated each from the others.
Koehn said he was a consensus builder who had developed relationships with other business owners. He said he liked to look at numbers and was frugal about how he approached that because he wants to squeeze the most out of tax dollars.
“We really have a thriving Newton,” he said. “I’m a cheerleader.”
Kreie said he spent about 40 years working on economic development. He said he was part of a group that advocated for downtown development and that he represented developers when they were working through ordinances and regulations.
Thompson cited his experience in traveling to 48 states and Canada to learn how cities applied strategies in maintaining beautiful communities. He said economic justice brought equality and justice, and he wants to bring those to Newton.
Valentine said she hanged her hat on her character and humility. She said she worked in the medical field for 20 years and was very attuned to details. She also said she believed in researching things to get a clear understanding of them.
Gormley said two things he offered were communication and perspective. He said communication required listening. As for his perspective, he said he started out as a welder and went back to school as an adult, and now he is working toward a master’s degree. He said the commission needed somebody his age with children in the school system.