Seven candidates — one incumbent and six challengers — are vying for three available seats on the Garden City Commission.
Incumbent Melvin Dale will be on the Nov. 7 ballot, as well as challengers Lindsay Byrnes, Keith Collins, John Hahn, Troy Unruh, Pedro Rodriguez Jr. and Chris Hamlin.
Dale, who currently serves as mayor of Garden City, has served on the City Commission since 2013. Now retired, he worked in law enforcement for 30 years. He and his wife have five stepchildren.
Byrnes, 39, is a physician and hospitalist at St. Francis and Wesley Medical Center in Wichita. She has served on the board of directors of Russell Child Development Center since 2012, and on the board of directors for the Kansas Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics since 2013. She has three children: Mattie, 6, Mikey, 5, and Tommie, 2.
Collins, 62, is self-employed, owning Advantage Payment Systems that operates in the business sector. He is a former chairman and current member of the Traffic Advisory Board, former member of the Golf Course Advisory Board, a current volunteer for the Capital Improvement Program, current board member for Kansas Workforce One, and a board member for SDSI Endowment Association. He and his wife, Barbara, have two children: Sean and Shannon.
Hahn, 35, is the retail store manager of United Wireless in Garden City. He has yet to hold a position in public office. He and his wife, Nicole, have four children: Trenton, Mackenzie, Ashton and Breckyn. They are expecting a fifth child.
Unruh, 54, is an insurance agent/consultant for State Farm Insurance. He serves as chairman of the Garden City Teachers Federal Credit Union and is on the board for Leadership Garden City. He serves on the board of the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as the Community Health Advisory Board. He and his wife, Brenda, have four children: Maggie, Emily, Elizabeth and Drew.
Rodriguez, 62, is self-employed. He served two terms on the city council in Denison, Iowa, from 2009 to 2016. He and his wife, Gloria, have three grown children living out of state.
Hamlin, 29, is an independent crop insurance adjuster. He was born and raised in Garden City and has volunteered with the Finney County Young Professionals from 2014 to 2015.
There are three seats open as current commissioners Janet Doll and Chris Law are not seeking re-election. The top three vote-getters will win the available seats on the board.
The Telegram sent each of the candidates a questionnaire asking their thoughts on various issues pertaining to the city, and all but Hamlin returned the questionnaires. Here’s what they had to say:
What do you see as the most pressing housing need in the community, and what should the city be doing to meet this need?
Byrnes: The most pressing need before our community (and many across rural America) is affordable and safe housing. … The available units for purchase in the range that folks can afford are small, and for those, there is great demand. There are more rental units available now due to recent construction, but still out of affordable reach for many. … I think looking to rehab existing housing would be a potential solution. Certainly, more availability of senior housing is helpful as it relieves maintenance and tax burden for older folks looking to downsize while still maintaining community.
Collins: … It is a difficult challenge to build affordable housing, so much so that most new housing construction will be built as a step up for those families who own a home, which they may have out grown, to use the equity in their current property to step up into a newer, larger home. This allows first-time home buyers to step into older homes so that they, too, will have the opportunity to build equity. ... Additionally, multi-tiered retirement complexes should have the same effect as new single family housing, in that our senior citizens can have an opportunity to live in a less demanding environment, while maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. This will allow them to move into comfortable housing without the demands of yard work and housing maintenance, and open up their existing housing to be marketed to the public.
Dale: … We don’t control who and how many building projects are going on. What we do is help in ways that we hope will make them more affordable — by helping with the infrastructure and finding ways to offset the cost of the building through RHID’S (Rural Housing Incentives District) assistance. We have at this time three separate RHID projects ongoing. … This brings me back to the discussion of needing more "affordable housing." … It’s all very individual and boils down to "affordable" is what you can afford — not what you want to afford. We have investors and builders in Garden City building homes at a steady rate meeting their goals with the labor force we have available.
Hahn: Though the crunch has been somewhat eased, we still have a large need for affordable housing in both the rental market and those looking to buy. We are doing a fantastic job at building houses in the $200,000 to $300,000 range with programs like the RHID, but affordable rentals and houses under $150,000 are very slim. We need to reach out to contractors and developers to find solutions for this segment of the market. I do realize it is tough to accomplish with the price of land and construction costs as they are currently. ... I would like to dig deeper into building codes, permit fees and any other government regulations that might be slowing this industry down.
Rodriguez: I believe we should continue exploring the models of other cities, using all available resources from state and federal aid, along with local incentives to alleviate the housing problem. I am aware of many people driving daily as much as 50 miles to work in the Garden City area.
Unruh: Provide excellent customer service, through the Neighborhood and Development Services and Utility departments of the city, to developers and builders. Partner with the state and federal governments on housing incentives and reduce regulations, if any, that are hurdles to the creation of housing and rental units. Convene with other entities, including the Chamber of Commerce, Finney County Economic Development Corp., large and small business and a diverse group of citizens to help create a working definition of affordable housing. Our work is to be a part of the solution.
Are you in favor of increasing the local sales tax rate to fund community development projects? If so, do you support the proposed .3-cent countywide sales tax increase?
Byrnes: Yes, I am in favor of the sales tax proposal that will be on the ballot Nov. 7. … I think that the projects identified are necessary and fall under the responsibility of city government to attend to, and this type of tax is a reasonable way to help offset resident burden by also collecting tax from those who come here to buy goods.
Collins: I do support the sales tax increase for these projects. Frankly, these projects are going to have to be funded. Using sales tax to do so is the most efficient, fair method to achieve this. Roughly one-half of the sales tax collected in Finney County comes from out of county people who also benefit from the services that Garden City and Finney County provide. … Having said all of this, let me summarize by saying that the sales tax issue, in my view, is not a burden, it is a responsibility to public safety and our quality of life. And that is exactly what government is supposed to provide.
Dale: I am most definitely behind the local sales tax rate increase. … We (city officials) discussed avenues of funding. We knew it would either be by sales tax, mill levy, or save for it. Savings always sounds good, but high dollar items like these would take years to save for, and before you even got close because of the time involved, the project cost might well raise 20 to 30 percent. We also knew that each one of these projects has support groups of their own, and it would be taking a chance of losing those supporters who’s project was not selected. It was decided that the best way to fund the project and getting the citizens of Finney County behind it was to bundle the projects and fund it with a sales tax. Shoppers from out of Finney County will be helping fund this by about 40 percent.
Hahn: … I will say that I am in favor of these projects, and our community needs them done. If the sales tax fails to get passed, I will work hard on finding other ways to fund these projects. If it passes, I will do my best to uphold what the citizens of Garden City want.
Rodriguez: If our goal is to attract customers to our businesses, I don’t believe it will happen by raising taxes. ... I would agree with the need of half the projects the public is being asked to vote on.
Unruh: As a commissioner, representing what the residents of Garden City think and support is what is important about any tax issue. … If the sales tax increase passes, we need to give every dollar a name, telling it what to do before we begin, creating a transparent and accountable system. … From those I have had the honor to engage, if residents were allowed to vote on the merit of each issue, many would pass, and the others could be completed through collaboration of interested entities. ... Taxes seem to be the easier answer to getting large projects done. However, when we plan, save and collaborate on projects, it may take more time, energy and effort, but if done right, it would be an indicator to residents of the city’s fiscal responsibility and effective future planning.
How would you ensure that you and city government are reaching out and communicating with a culturally diverse constituency?
Byrnes: This comes down to knowing the members of your community and participating in personal conversations about how members of your community are affected by particular issues that come before city government. Diversity is a term that encompasses ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, gender and socioeconomic status and so recognizing that, it is a tall order, but one that anyone who wants to publicly serve a community must be able to perform.
Collins: … Many of our citizens come from cultures that discourage talking with people in government. I want to go to them to start these conversations. Good people deserve to be able to be comfortable talking to city leaders, and I deeply want to be one of those leaders who listen and strive to solve issues. I want to represent good people all over our community. …
Dale: … I would always want to support the diversity in our community. We know that only good can come from treating all our citizens with respect and encourage them to feel at home… During the Diversity Breakfast this (in October) it was great to see the smiles and the respect shown to our police department and Chief Utz, who went above and beyond to keep the lines of communication open during the unfortunate bombing incident a few months ago. It was obvious how much that community appreciated the department efforts. ... Our city staff, managed by Matt Allen, have done a great job in creating a team who have respect for one another and all our neighbors.
Hahn: … We are a community of individuals working together to help our city succeed. I’m willing to reach out to anyone who is willing to learn and work hard towards that common goal.
Rodriguez: Notwithstanding technology, I truly feel the need for diversity in our local government. For it is this way the citizens feel represented. My hope is to inspire to take up their civic duty, at least to vote.
Unruh: I want to change the way city commissioners engage with our community. It will be our responsibility to reach out, work for and value what the community has to say. This could include: holding town hall commission meetings where it is convenient for diverse populations. As a commissioner, I will continue to attend celebrations, festivals and events that build a deeper understanding of those cultures that call Garden City home. We are a diverse population with diverse strengths and values. Everyone’s input is vital, as we collectively make decisions that impact us all.
Is there anything you would like to see the city do differently when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees?
Byrnes: For someone to want to move to our community and build a life for their family here, there are four major determinants: (1) affordable housing (2) quality schools (3) safe childcare (4) accessible healthcare. In my personal experience, availability of childcare has been the difference in being able to practice medicine locally and commuting to Wichita. ... I believe it would be a remarkable recruitment and retention tool for local employers to form a childcare center. The city could help by facilitating an updated feasibility study of economic costs in our area, including lost opportunity, productivity and turnover of employees that could be used to support a cooperative solution.
Collins: … The largest issue for recruitment is a lack of housing. We have very good people in this community who are dedicated to solving this complex and difficult issue. Our leaders have done a great job of growing our prosperous community, and that success has spawned the housing problem. As we continue to grow, so will housing continue to be an issue we must address. Saying that we must build additional housing is easy, but accomplishing that task is not. I will work closely with those involved to see if there are additional tools that we can use to incentivize that goal.
Dale: At this point, I wouldn’t do anything different, we continue to advertise all over the country and state, we attend job fairs to promote Garden City as a great place to work, live and raise children. With the high-tech media age, we are able promote all over the country. We do get asked frequently what we can do differently or better to encourage folks to look closely at our town, and we are certainly open to suggestions. …
Hahn: We have many entities working on recruitment and retention already. Many people come to Garden City to get valuable experience in their field of interest and leave a few years after. We should celebrate the fact we have a community that fosters young professionals and builds a great future for them, while also working to improve quality of life and encouraging them to either stay or return to raise their families.
Rodriguez: I believe that if the employee felt welcome, with opportunity for advancement, a fair wage, and decent housing, there would be no to few reasons to leave Garden City.
Unruh: … One of the biggest stumbling blocks for those moving to our community to work is housing. As a city, we need to enable builders and developers to provide places to live and rent at a price that new employees can afford. We owe it to our residents to cooperate to make progress on the issue of affordable housing.
What are your budget priorities?
Byrnes: I think the budget priorities of any commissioner and the city government has to be supporting the core functions of city government. That being said, I believe that careful vetting to make certain that money is being spent where it is intended and for necessary functions is of the utmost importance, and I see my role in particular, to be one who asks pointed questions and assure transparency. Also, I think a commissioner must be cognizant of the range and type of taxes that we pay and the entire burden on the citizen, and be an advocate for responsible and fair taxes…
Collins: While I support the current sales tax initiative, my budget priorities will always be to maintain taxes as low as possible while providing those things which I believe are the true responsibility of city government: infrastructure, public safety and quality of life.
Dale: …We want our city to be safe, clean and a place we can all enjoy together and are proud to call home. Those are things that mean a lot to all of us, our quality of life, and I promise to keep the spending as low as possible and be prudent with your monies.
Hahn: We have a great program in the Capital Improvement Plan, and it is very helpful in educating commissioners and the community on what should be budget priorities. I will take input from the CIP, citizens, advisory boards and city staff in order to make the appropriate budget decisions.
Rodriguez: I am not sure the project funding the public is being asked to vote on will pass. In that case, I believe the city will be obligated to prioritize and more to provide mandatory services.
Unruh: To provide excellent essential services, police, fire, streets and utilities. Simply put, we need to spend less than we collect. It is my responsibility, as a commissioner, to make sure I and other commissioners do not forget that it is our citizens who fund the city. ... The residents of Garden City are our customers. Our goal should be to provide the highest level of customer service, at a reasonable cost.
What direction would you like to see the city go in regards to economic development?
Byrnes: I think so often when we think of “economic development” we believe that equates to “building more things.” In many instances, it does. However, I think that we need to invest in what we already have, as well. I come from a family of farmers, whom have almost always grown wheat, corn and sorghum. However, it is obvious to all of us, with the condition of the aquifer, that irrigation cannot continue as it has in the past. Commodities are going to need to change, and I like the idea of re-thinking what the potential of agriculture can be in our region, whether that is more suitable crops or change in methodologies.
Collins: I want to see more manufacturing jobs in Garden City. The major factor keeping that from happening is our housing situation. Until we can solve that situation, our growth in this area will be restricted. I believe that our retail sector will continue to grow. … Bringing quality manufacturing jobs to our community (and having those men and women bring their families to town) will automatically add available workers from which retail stores will be able to tap for their workforce.
Dale: … We have been fortunate that our recent efforts have given us success, and success breeds success. I know there are more opportunities out there, and with forward thinking, responsible city government, that will be a good thing for our city. … I promise to encourage positive future growth and support all our partners with the future plans for our home.
Hahn: We are the retail hub of western Kansas due to the fact that economic development has been extremely successful, and I don’t see that changing or slowing down anytime soon. … In the case of our community, you can consider new business the streams coming in and the extra revenues the streams coming out. We don’t want economic growth to stop for this reason. The only thing lacking now is entertainment options, and the new STAR Bond project should jump-start us in the right direction for providing some more options for Garden City and the region.
Rodriguez: Within city limits, I believe there are possibilities that have to be presented, and downtown will have to diversify to attract downtown business.
Unruh: I applaud the direction we are currently moving in when it comes to economic development. I want to publicly thank Lona Duvall, executive director of the Finney County Economic Development Corp., the staff and her engagement board for their accomplishments over the past several years. I also recognize that economic development is the community’s work, not just one agency. ... The next big economic development event I would personally like to attend is the opening of the new coal-fired power plant at Sunflower Electric Power Corp., Holcomb station.
What motivated you to run, and do you have a particular issue or platform that you are campaigning on?
Byrnes: I was motivated to run for the City Commission to serve my community. I want to set an example of public service and community involvement for my kids. I want to help sustain and develop Garden City to be a home for them as it has been a home to me. My perspective is that of a single, working mother and a physician, and I would bring that lens to examine the issues brought before the commission.
Collins: I am simply running for the City Commission because I love being involved in our community. I feel that I have good experience and common sense, and that I can be a productive, positive force. I love this city, and I very much like the direction it is headed. I believe our leadership has been excellent, and I want to be part of that tradition.
Dale: I have no particular issue that I have in mind. … I feel that I was blessed with the privilege of having a part in the past and would look forward with great energy in helping guide a place we call home into the future.
Hahn: I believe getting involved in your community is important, especially at my age… I am running to continue the great success of Garden City. The only thing I see that concerns me is the lack of childcare providers and centers. I would like to tackle this issue helmet to helmet.
Rodriguez: I was motivated by a quote from President Andrew Jackson: “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes.” In my younger years, I took an oath to “protect and serve.” I believe this is currently the best way I can do that.
Unruh: … I believe that being elected as a city commissioner should be about citizens whose voices and concerns I represent. Our people make Garden City the best place to live in Kansas, and I want to continue to be a part of our success.