Fort aims to uphold pride in community as Finney County Commissioner

11/1/2012

BY SCOTT AUST

BY SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

The idea of community involvement took root at an early age for longtime Garden City educator Patsy Fort.

Fort, who was born in Garden City and grew up in Leoti where her dad was mayor for a number of years, saw first-hand what community involvement meant.

"One of the things I always tell my students is a community is only as good as what people put back into the community. I'm at a time in my life that maybe I can give back in a different way than I have in the past," Fort said.

Fort, a Democrat, faces Republican challenger Duane Drees, a longtime area farmer, in Tuesday's election to represent District 3. The winner will replace outgoing commissioner Don Doll who decided earlier this year not to run for a third term. The third district includes northeast Garden City and northeast Finney County, including Kalvesta.

Fort has been a teacher in the Garden City USD 457 school district for 28 years. She and her husband, Jon, a real estate business owner, raised two children. She holds a master's degree from Fort Hays State University.

Serving on the county commission would be a different community service capacity than teaching, but Fort thinks her experience in creative problem-solving techniques and a belief in collaboration would be beneficial.

"The reason I'm running for county commissioner is I'm at the point in my life where I really want to give back to the community. A lot of people run for office because they have a bone to pick or a hidden agenda. I don't have that at all. I have a lot of pride in Finney County. I'd like to be a part of making it better," Fort said.

Like her opponent, Fort supports the county's sales tax ballot question to support building and road maintenance instead of using property taxes for those needs.

"Nobody wants higher taxes, but infrastructure is so important for any community to prosper and grow, so I think we've got to do that," she said.

Regarding economic development, specifically the discussions about allowing Finney County Economic Development Corp. to share a portion of the bed tax for use in economic development efforts, Fort said she's unsure if splitting the money is equitable, but having the two groups talk about it is a good idea.

FCEDC asked the county to consider creating a fund that could be used to provide incentives when wooing new business and industry to the county. That fund would be created by tapping into additional money raised when the bed tax was increased by 2 percent a couple of years ago. Currently, all the bed tax money is allocated to the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau for its activities. The commission told the two groups to talk about the idea and come back with a recommendation in the future.

"It's kind of a sticky situation, but I think anytime you can collaborate and work together you'll have the best outcome. I think collaboration is key," she said.

However, Fort also thinks there needs to be a specific use identified for the money rather than letting money accumulate in a fund.

"I think everybody wants to know where that money is going. I would want some specific information on how it's going to be used," she said. "I think everybody's tired of their property taxes going up, and I'm tired of it, too. But we also want to continue to do well (in economic development), so I think it would be a good way to do it with the bed tax."

Fort agreed with Drees that economic development overall needs to go after both new industry and new retail business. She wants to avoid becoming stagnant, and would support identifying local needs and pursuing them. Her role as a commissioner, in addition to setting policy, would be to be a strong advocate and promoter of Finney County as a great place to visit and live.

"I enjoy living in Finney County. I like it here. I've been other places, not long in other places, but I think there's a lot of benefit to being here and I think we need to promote that. I think we have a lot going for us as a community," she said.

Economic development, celebrating diversity and maintaining infrastructure are Fort's top priorities. She believes it's important to set policies that allow all community members to pull together for the good of all and make the county and city something to take pride in.

"It's like at school. If kids don't feel a part of the school, they don't take pride in the school and then they don't take care of it. So I feel like that's kind of like how our community is if we aren't unified," she said.

Fort supports enforcing regulations designed to clean up properties that have become eyesores.

"As you drive into the county from other places, you want people to go, 'Wow, this is a neat community,'" she said. "We don't want people to say this is a really dirty town. I've heard people say that about other communities, that they don't want to live there because it looks really dirty. It's putting our best foot forward."

Regarding increased inspection of rental properties, an issue sparked by a fire that claimed three lives earlier this year in a rental home that didn't have a working smoke detector, Fort supports the goal of increased safety but thinks it may be difficult for the county to police effectively. She said spot inspections may be an idea to talk about, or create a way to remind property owners about safety issues.

On the concern about state budget cuts potentially leading to more of an economic burden at the local level in the future, Fort said the county would need to be "creative" in such a situation.

"We can't have things fall into disrepair. We have to have certain things in the community for the welfare for all of the citizens," she said. "I think we'll have to set priorities, and get the people it affects involved in the decision making."

If there is some kind of hit on a local level from a state budget deficit, Fort favors finding areas to cut the county budget first before looking at other avenues like increasing revenue.

"You have to think first about the health and safety of the people of Finney County," she said.

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