This article is the second in a series profiling the six candidates for Hays City Commission.
Dustin Roths says he long has been interested in seeking public office, but was waiting until the right time. The 31-year-old has been working to build his business, Diamond R Jewelry, located in downtown Hays.
Roths has lived in Hays six years and also for four years previously while attending Fort Hays State University. He said his campaign was prompted, in part, by people asking him to consider putting his name on the ballot.
“Growth of the community is probably my top priority. I think it’s mutually beneficial for everybody if the community is growing,” Roths said. “I think naturally Hays will grow just because of the nature of agriculture, but if we can diversify our economy a little bit and make it so that we’re not so heavily reliant on oil and agriculture, we could really see some good regional growth.”
Q: Why did you decide to run for city commission?
A: I always thought that maybe someday I would run, but with running my little business it was never really an option. I was too busy with that. I think I finally got my business to a point where it’s not as critical that I’m around at all times. I’ve got good employees, and I’ve created systems that work now. When I was thinking about it, I actually went in and got put on the ballot literally the last day that we could. I had some people (asking me to run) and some pressure. I prayed about it and decided maybe what was needed on the commission was someone who was involved in business, who has some experience in retail and could bring some insight from that vantage point. And with a few people prodding me and saying they would be happy to help back me, I kind of just took the plunge and said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot and see if Hays wants me or not.’
Q: If elected, what will your top priorities be?
A: Growth of the community is probably my top priority. I think it’s mutually beneficial for everybody if the community is growing. I think naturally Hays will grow just because of the nature of agriculture, but if we can diversify our economy a little bit and make it so that we’re not so heavily reliant on oil and agriculture, we could really see some good regional growth. And so that being said, my top priorities are to make our city government as efficient as possible. That way we can be competitive on tax rates and things like that that I know are attractive to businesses, and that being said, make it so we're a business-friendly atmosphere in Hays. I hope that would be my biggest strong point. When businesses come in, they’re setting across the table if they happen to have to come to a city meeting with a business person that understands their needs, their wants, and the entire business plan that they’re trying to do and makes it so that they feel comfortable with how they’re going to be taxed for the next 30, 50, 100 years that they may live in this community.
Q: What do you feel are the city of Hays’ biggest strengths? Weaknesses?
A: Our biggest strengths are probably we’re a large city in a relatively rural part of the world, so that leads to us having quite a bit more retail options and things of that nature than a typical city of our size. We have great people, just very cordial and nice people to be around. I don’t have a single neighbor that I don’t get along with. I think all around, we have a really good standard of living that just leads to a great community atmosphere. Obviously oil is one of our strengths, agriculture is one of our strengths. Our university is a huge strength of ours with it ever growing, and our health center is a huge strength of ours. That’s probably what I feel are the biggest strengths for sure of Hays. Right now, a little bit of our commercial land pricing is relatively high, which leads to a lot of the sprawl effort we’ve seen for people trying to buy land farther out of town and sprawl the community, so that would be a weakness. But other than that, we do have a weakness with our water resources, something I know that has been being worked on for quite a while and I would love to dive into problem-solving on that. As far as our main weaknesses, I would say that cost of housing I know a lot of people complain about it and there’s definitely a reasoning for that. Luckily, and not luckily as of late, you have seen a little bit of a decrease, a little bit more inventory. That’s the main thing I would say is our weaknesses. As far as fixing those, those would be some top issues to tackle for sure.
Q: Recently, the city commission discussed a concept to construct three roundabout structures on North Vine Street to help with traffic control. Do you favor this idea? If not, what would you propose as an alternative?
A: It’s interesting that we have to talk about that in terms of how much traffic is there. One of the things that I was incredibly disappointed with was that we weren’t able to get the truck stop in on the opposite exit. So a lot of our traffic has to come on that exit, because it’s the only one with fuel resources and things of that nature. As far as looking into how round-abouts work and getting people comfortable with the idea, I would be in favor of it. I would hope it would be because the community is growing and not necessarily just because that’s the only exit people can get on and off of. As of right now, I would be against it. I think possibly another light to make it so people could get in and out. I understand what they’re saying as far as when you don't have a light, how hard it is to get out onto Vine there. But it is a relatively expensive idea. If in the end term, we can figure out a way to have gas stations and any of this basic one-stop, quick, easy in-and-out traffic in our community be leveraged to our other exits, we probably could push off the need and the cost structure of these roundabouts for quite a while, I would think. I hope the reason we need roundabouts is because it’s so busy out there, but until we look at switching out where we have a hotel that was just ripped down with more reason for people to come off that exit, I would probably say I’m negative on them right now.
Q: There has been much discussion about economic development and new business recruitment within the city. What do you think the city should do to help move the local economy forward? What are some obstacles the city faces?
A: The biggest thing I say, I’m relatively Libertarian about the idea of going out and trying to grab businesses. Obviously, I think the community and people in general see businesses that they think would do well. I think definitely we need to reach out to them and say we would love to have you in the community and be as helpful with that kind of stuff as possible. But more than anything, and this is something I’ve harped on throughout my campaign, we have to seize opportunities when they’re in front of us. When people are knocking on the door and want to come to Hays, we need to do what government is supposed to do, and that is get them infrasture, figure out a way to make their business plan work. TIFs, CIDs, things like that are taxes they’re willing to take on to take on and impose on their customers to help build their infrastructure. If they want to do that, if we don’t utilize those types of things, these businesses are just fine with going to other communities that are. They bring a long-term (benefit) -- they bring employment, they bring tax revenue, they bring the best thing businesses bring which is services to all the people of the community. We definitely have to be aggressive when we have businesses that do want to be here. But that aggressiveness doesn't come from throwing out blanket amounts of money and watching who bites on them. It should be about, hey this seems like a business that should do well in Hays. They feel like they can do well in Hays. What do they need to make that a possibility.
Q: Do you agree with the city commission’s decision to reduce support for the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development?
A: It’s tough. I’m on the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development. As far as that goes, I would say the structure of the coalition was the biggest problem that most of the city and county people had with it, the amount of board members and things of that nature. My biggest problem with decreasing that at a time of need was I feel like they put things on the table. The job that Aaron White does is definitely not one that is very public. He is constantly working behind the scenes on things and when he brings you opportunities and you don’t seize the opportunities, it’s tough to then go back and blame anything on the coalition. That being said, I don’t think they should have decreased the coalition’s stuff only in terms of the idea that it seems like a negative thing when we’re already in a little bit of a downturn in our economy because of agriculture and oil. I think that is the worst time to start trying to take away from possible business growth structures. But being on the coalition I know a lot more about the coalition and why it was put together and why it was developed. And their biggest fear was that when they became quasi-government, because then what happened is you allow political winds to affect the board and the decisions that the board made. And … a lot of their private funding went away because business owners in the community hated that the city and the county had so much say in what was going on there. So it ended up becoming quasi-government and they ended up having city council members and county guys on the board and when they were on the board it seemed like instead of us concentrating solely on attracting business and attracting a diverse workforce and higher paying jobs and things of that nature, it got politicized quite a bit. While I disagree that I don’t think they should have cut funding for the coalition, only because it looked like a negative to possible businesses coming into the community, I can see how what they were afraid was going to happen did happen. And so the idea that they didn’t think the board size was a certain size that (they wanted), was not for them to decide. It was for the coalition to decide. That money was supposed to be laid for them to do as they felt. Now maybe that little bit of political pressure will make some good changes within the coalition but that’s just my opinion. It seemed like a really negative thing. And obviously, it got thrown all over the media as it probably should have, but I can tell you when a business who might be looking at Hays looks from a long ways away and the first thing they see is the city is cutting funding to a coalition for economic development, it might be an immediate black eye and an immediate move on. That was the only thing I think, the amount of money we're talking that was cut was probably inconsequential to the coalition because of the amount of assets they’re holding onto, but they are doing things and like I said it's just not very public things. It actually by nature has to be very private. It’s just sad to see there’s this huge shake-up with that at a time when we’re really looking at some possible good projects coming to Hays.
Q: Speaking of the coalition, outside agency funding is often a topic of much discussion during budget planning. Do you support the decisions the commission made this year (reduce funding for FHSU scholarships and the coalition, leave all others at full support)? Would you have recommended any other additional changes?
A: Selectively taking a little bit of money out of Fort Hays for the scholarship funding and the coalition, that’s probably the worst way to go about it I would say. If you were systematically just trying to lessen that amount of money, my biggest thing was looking at return on investment. As a businessman, that’s what I hope I can bring to the city council is what is returning on investment? The big thing is, I believe they knocked $10,000 out of $100,000 off of Fort Hays State University. Fort Hays State University’s budget is I think nearly $20 million. So $10,000 is probably really inconsequential to Fort Hays State. The idea that the only thing that $10,000 was doing was creating a good relationship, but I believe it’s a mutual relationship between the college and the city. As far as that goes, I would almost think the college being as well as they’re doing, wouldn’t request so much money from the city when they realize the city is lacking on sales tax revenue. … The other thing is it is secondary education and when you start talking about that it needs to be a decision of the student, whether or not they're willing to take the financial burden to go to school. The Libertarian in me always says why would we take from taxpayers to give to something that should be an individual’s responsibility? And so I’m probably OK with a little bit of the decrease for Fort Hays and for the Coalition, I think DHDC returns on investment better than probably any of them which is probably why they didn’t see the decrease, plus the transition to a different funding source for it from the CVB. But that should be the No. 1 thing on any of these outside agencies. What is returning on investment because you are spending taxpayer money and you should be very diligent about how that is done. But like I say, it’s a mutual relationship between Fort Hays State University and the city. They both need to prosper, to do well. The beauty of the city of Hays attracts a lot of students to their university as well. Any time you get in mutual relationships between municipalities and hospitals and colleges and businesses, it’s much better that way I always think.
Q: Should the city give incentives to established businesses or potential new businesses to expand or move into the city? If so, what.
A: It’s one of those things, like I said I’m conservative, but I’m also Libertarian. I think CIDs and TIFs are typically just ways that a business is using taxation to grow and build their infrastructure for their business. A lot of times, they can’t even get bank loans without these type of mechanisms. It’s a good mechanism to try and grow your business. And as long as you can bring a viable plan, I will vote for any of them that I think is a viable plan. Now if you’ve let your business go down the tubes for the last two decades and now you’re in infrastructure problems, it might be a thing where I don’t feel like you can have this somewhat hidden tax on your customers and maybe you should look at selling your business or things of that nature, and I’m just hitting on the mall on that one. Definitely TIFs, CIDs those are great mechanisms for us to grow the community and anytime someone has a great business plan, viable business plan, and I feel like they will be an asset to the community, I will vote for every single one of them.
Q: Housing needs also have been discussed. Do you feel affordable housing, and/or housing availability, is an issue in the city? If so, how should the issue be addressed?
A: They did a housing study but from 2015 so that 2015 housing study is kind of just a snapshot in time. I know quite a few realtors. The Hays Board of Realtors has backed my campaign. From all of them, the idea … of course we need more housing. The hope is our community is growing and probably within next decade growing by 5 to 10 thousand people because of the less need for people in rural areas of western Kansas. So we hope we grow the community from them. So we’ll need more housing. But that being said, I think the free market will handle those type of things. Right now, there’s a lot of inventory in the higher price range that will set on the market for years trying to get offers and so anytime you see that, a lot of times people sit there and they go, well we need affordable housing. And the idea of affordable housing is well then we just need to make smaller houses or whatever. In all actuality, any housing will decrease the housing as a whole. So if the only way that builders can make money is building $250,000 houses right now, that’s what they’re going to build. But the more of them that there are, the more it drives down the price of houses that are in the $170,000 or $140,000 range. So a lot of times we try to move around an economy the way we would like, in all actuality people might be able to afford a much nicer house than they think when there’s more inventory on the market. But we also got to look at property taxes and things of that nature, because that’s a huge chunk of what ends up being a person’s mortgage payment. As long as we keep those things in check and our community’s growing, we want to make it so that it’s a good decision to buy a home in Hays. When it is, that means that people aren’t losing money by buying homes but they actually can put together the capital and the resources to purchase homes.
Q: As you know, a legal process is in the works to secure future water rights to the city-owned R9 Ranch in Edwards County. What are your thoughts about that project, and is there anything else you feel the city should be looking at in terms of water resources?
A: I’ve actually had a little bit of discussion about the R9 Ranch. My biggest fear with the R9, one is cost. It’s a relatively expensive project. And so anytime you get something that is that many dollars, tens of millions of dollars, I always want to look at all other possibilities. I think it’s nearly $75 million that the pipeline will cost. I wonder being a retailer, small business owner in Hays I know I have many customers from Edwards County. And if they feel like we’re stealing water resources from them, will it be a negative impact on their wanting to come here as opposed to Dodge City or Great Bend. They’re closer to Great Bend, obviously. But that’s my feeling on it. Definitely look at all of the possibilities. I have done a little bit of looking and research on this, obviously I’m not an expert on water resources at all but I know that we are over the Dakota Aquifer. The problem with the Dakota Aquifer is that it’s saltwater that’s underneath us. It’s not usable until it would be desalinated. So the thought process is what’s the cost of the desalination? How hefty is that resource of Dakota water and is it possible we could save $40 million building a desalination plant, spending excess money each year. It costs, obviously, energy to desalinate water. But with that excess energy can we work with an energy company to buy energy at a more competitive rate for all their customers? So there’s all kinds of options. I just wonder about the negative publicity that you get from piping water from one county to another. As much as we talk about in any of the plans, the best thing about it is we would be using less water resources than what irrigation on the land is being used for already. It is a transportation of that water. When you irrigate, you drop that water back down. You lose quite a bit through when the water evaporates but when you actually take it out of the ground and move it to another county, you’re not seeing any leaching of that water back into their reserves. I think definitely I’d like to look at all the things. I feel like as a small business owner, I spend my whole day problem solving. Anytime anything like this comes about I want to assume that experts have looked into it and that, but I also want to play devil’s advocate. I want us to look at all of our options before we jump into $65, $75 million projects that could have a negative impact on potential clientele for most of our businesses and just make sure that we’re making the right decision.
Q: In the past, city commissioners have shot down ideas of using city sales tax to fund a potential school bond. What are your thoughts on using city sales tax to help fund renovations/improvements for Hays USD 489 school buildings?
A: I would definitely be OK with that. It would always probably be dependent on the amount, how long the sales tax stays enforced, things of that nature. The original school bond was shot down by the voters and I think the reason for that is the people of Hays felt like it was excessive and it wasn’t a good time for it. So that being said, I would be OK with the idea but most likely ... I mean, I’m very conservative in terms of what they would do as far as renovations, I don’t know. But infrastructure, things of that nature, it always needs to be updated and taken care of and I completely understand that. I hate to tie people’s hands when they’re just trying to do their job within the school system. That would be my biggest issue. Sure I would be happy to hear any of it. But it would have to be a pretty -- for me being as conservative of a person as I am -- it would have to be very well put together and be very well needed.
Q: Are there any other issues you would like to discuss?
A: Most of this hit on many of the things we’ve talked about. My biggest thing that I’ve talked to people about within the campaign is just who do you want representing your community? If it’s not me, that’s OK. But when people look at Hays, I want them to … my reason for running is I want them to see that they are represented by a conservative person, a business person, a business mind and an honest person that would do everything they could and love the city of Hays. So that is my biggest issue in the campaign it’s so hard in city government to pick apart any kind of thing. That’s partially why they don’t allow party politics in it. It’s a little bit tough as far as that goes. I really am happy it’s a November election; it used to be off-elections and I don’t think we got a very good representation of the electorate in Hays because it was such low voter turnout. I hope people show up and vote and I hope that through my campaign, through my business, through my life to this point, that I look like something and somebody they would want to represent their city in front of all the potential people that may come. I’m just ready to do what I can to grow. It’s beneficial to me and I think it’s beneficial to everybody.