Kansas, the make-do state

The Board of Harvey County Commissioners recently approved an intention to sell one of the county’s three parks and named an upcoming property tax cap and increasingly tight budgets as one of the reasons.

That decision drew a crowd, upset at the suggestion, who packed the commission chamber, and has sparked what will look to be a petition campaign to force the commission to put the decision on the ballot.

This editorial isn’t to argue for or against the sale. It’s to say that in Kansas, we ought to get used to non-essential services and amenities going away if we haven’t already.

This will continue to be what local governance will look like in Kansas.

Much of the nation has climbed out of the valley left by the national recession. Wages continue to grow. Hiring nationwide continues. And while this, for some reason, might upset a few people, the economy nationally is far better than it was eight years ago.

Yet in Kansas, on the local and state level, we continue to have the same conversations we’ve had since the recession—that is, how do we make do. Perhaps that’s a suggestion for a new state slogan.

Kansas: making do.

A decade ago the state decreased funding to local city and county revenue sharing programs. Cuts were made.
Now state budgets, through large income tax cuts, have declined over the years and pressure gets pushed on local governments.

Harvey County has seen decreases in state grants for the Health Department, decreases in Federal Highway Funding that passes through the state, and according to the Assistant County Administrator Anthony Swartzendruber will lose around $60,000 with the elimination of mortgage registration fees annually.

At the same time the state has cut back on services, pushing them again to local governments.

Sheriff T. Walton will tell you that now part of the Harvey County Jail serves as a mental ward. There’s no room at state mental facilities, especially since Osawatomie lost certification through years of underfunding.
So instead, people in need of mental treatment sit next to the courthouse behind bars, on the local dime.

They sit next to probation violators in the cells, on weekend long “dips” and 180-day “dunks.” Such violators used to be put in the state prison system but instead are now the county’s responsibility to confine and pay for. That change was touted as a way for the state to save money.

And after decreasing the proportion of state funding local governments receive and increasing the amount of services it pushes off onto them, the state now limits what such local governments can do with their revenue with a property tax cap coming in 2018.

The cap requires a vote if a governing body sees an increase in revenue greater than the rate of inflation on the consumer price index. Harvey County would have had to hold a vote this year if it increased revenue on its budget by $39,000. The special election to hold that vote would have cost the county $24,000.

Now people can see that cap as good or bad. They will now have a vote on what looks like any small increases in local government revenue.

But the reality of all these changes is this: with a finite amount of resources, local governments will prioritize providing the minimum services they are required to fund, to the detriment of services not legally required, but which serve the community.

Again, that doesn’t sound bad at all, until the service you like takes the cut.

Maybe it’s the sale of a park. Maybe it’s enlarged printed books for seniors.
Or perhaps it’s getting rid of flowers downtown, or not replacing playground equipment at a city park, providing funding to the senior center, or charging for bulky item pickup. Perhaps funds for economic development are cut.

Not all these things have happened and most people reading couldn’t care less about most of them. But there’s probably at least one on the list they do care about. It’s easy for everyone to say “make do with less,” until their issue ends up being part of the “less.”

None of this takes budgeting responsibilities off the shoulders of our elected officials. Their job is still to decide the best ways to spend money, and as we’ve seen in some cases, they can always do a better job in making those decisions. We’ve made those points on a regular basis. Hardships from the state cannot be used as an excuse.

But as long as we continue to vote for the people we do in the Kansas Legislature, for better or for worse, this is what we’ll see: a state constantly trying to figure out how to make do, as those around it grow.

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