Candidates share views at public forum
By SCOTT AUST
By SCOTT AUST
Candidates for the Finney County Commission and two state legislative districts shared their views on a variety of local and state issues during a Wednesday night public forum in Garden City.
The forum included Finney County candidates David Crase, Lon Pishny and Charles Sinclair from District 1; Bill Clifford and Larry Jones, both unopposed in the Aug. 5 primary; and incumbent state representatives Russ Jennings, 122nd District, and John Doll, 123rd District.
Doll is unopposed in the primary while Jennings is being challenged by Stan Rice of Lakin. Rice was invited to the forum but did not attend.
Jennings said forums allow the public to assess candidates and get some insight into who they are, what they are thinking about, their skills and their aptitudes.
"I'm disappointed that my opponent, for whatever reason, decided he wasn't able to be here. It doesn't give you an opportunity to evaluate us side by side and that's unfortunate," Jennings said.
The candidate forum was sponsored by The Garden City Telegram and the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce. The local chamber is not affiliated with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and makes no endorsements of candidates.
A moderator took turns pitching questions between county candidates and legislative candidates.
One of the first questions for county candidates asked them to explain how they would be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Jones said as a taxpayer himself, he also wants to keep taxes low. He said the county's proposed budget includes a slight mill levy decrease but since valuation is up a little more money is being spent.
"It seems like it's a non-ending battle. We had to cut a lot of outside agencies which is always painful. We try to treat everybody fairly," Jones said.
Clifford, a member of the GCCC board of trustees, said one of the reasons local governments are able to keep the mill levy flat or lower this year is because of the strength of the community's economic development efforts.
Crase, who served on the Garden City Commission for eight years, said keeping the mill levy low is always the goal though it sometimes needs to be increased. He agreed that recent economic activity — increased retail development and sales tax collections — have been a benefit.
Pishny said on most issues he would look to get input from the public about what services they want. Sometimes the mill levy may need to go up but it should be done in a prudent fashion, and for things the county is in the business of doing that private business can't fill.
Sinclair felt the county commission has done a great job so far. He said he has no ax to grind but wants to contribute to the community.
Generally, all the county candidates favored the court services building project if it consolidates some services under one roof and creates some efficiencies. But they also said it will be important to closely monitor the project to keep expenses in check.
"The things I've heard is do we really need it?" Sinclair said. "Is this something that we researched enough to keep (costs) to a minimum? I don't know. Time will tell whether we did it wrong or right."
When asked opinions of how the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau is handling increasing amounts of transient guest taxes, and whether they think a new convention center is important, candidates said they believe CVB is doing a good job at increasing awareness about the area throughout the state and region and that the bureau has improved operations since splitting from the Chamber a few years ago.
Most agreed Garden City is well on its way to being the retail center of southwest Kansas, and they would like to see it eventually become, if not an entertainment center, at least a destination for shopping, events and business conferences.
Most also agreed the idea of a convention center is a good idea, one the city has had on its list of goals for many years, but felt the funding and push should come mostly from the private sector with some assistance from public entities.
"If you make it very multipurpose, where you could have sports in there, conventions in there, concerts, you need to build it to be multi-functional. I think if you had it very well used it could be an asset to the community," Crase said.
Commission candidates are generally satisfied with economic development organization's efforts to attract primary jobs.
Sinclair would like to see more manufacturing companies recruited, while Jones said finding workers to fill available jobs and housing for them, rather than willing companies, is more of a factor in recruitment right now.
Clifford said it's an exciting time for Finney County.
"We're seeing the result of the work people have done for years. I think public entities sometimes do a better job by getting out of the way of business, but sometimes they get it right," Clifford said.
Clifford referred to a decision made when he was on the airport board several years ago to bring in the FAA control tower, well before anyone dreamed of the success now witnessed with the American Eagle airline service.
"It's become a tremendous lever to help us leverage business into Garden City because of our excellent air service," he said.
All indicated there may be areas where the city and county could consolidate services to reduce duplication, and all would be willing to take a look at it. Some of the areas mentioned as possibilities included law enforcement, insurance on public buildings, computers and maintenance.
On the legislative side, Jennings and Doll said the state's revenue shortfall, now somewhere around $328 million, is a huge challenge.
Jennings said it would be premature to identify any specific budget cuts or tax increases right now, but long-term he doesn't think a total elimination of the state income tax is feasible.
"I'm taking the all-of-the-above approach," Jennings said. "I think the one thing that won't be on the table is education. We just finished funding education at a level that was adequate to meet the court's requirements."
Doll said while he admires Gov. Sam Brownback, he disagrees with him on eliminating the income tax. He added that continued revenue shortfalls are not sustainable.
"You can ask any business. You can't continue on that road," he said.
Doll also vowed to resist special interests.
"I've said over and over again, I work for the people of Garden City. I don't work for a particular group of brothers or the Chamber," he said.
Regarding school funding, both Doll and Jennings felt the $129 million the legislature added to fund a court-ordered equalization of capital outlay and local option budgets was sufficient, but are unsure whether additional money will be needed.
Doll noted that the $129 million helped some districts, like Garden City, but smaller, rural districts didn't see much of a benefit. He said schools are classroom experts. The state needs to give them the funds and then get out of the way.
"We're getting into that business way too much. You need to supply local schools with what they need and let them run their schools," he said.
Regarding the numerous failed efforts during the past session to repeal the renewable energy portfolio standards, which calls for utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources like wind power by 2020, both Jennings and Doll are proud of their efforts to resist repeal efforts.
Jennings took the lead in resisting repeal efforts, speaking probably a half dozen times on the House floor during the last two weeks of the session to beat back the repeal efforts.
"Those that favor repeal will claim it's costing us huge amounts of money in our electric bills, and that is simply not true," Jennings said.
Jennings noted the wind industry has created more than $13 billion of investment in the state, and nearly 13,000 jobs. Kansas is the second best state for wind generation, and it can export that electricity to other states, just like it does wheat and airplanes.
Doll agreed, but said he doubts the repeal effort will just go away. He fully expects it to come back up in the next session.
"They tried to back door it, they tried to front door it, they tried every which way to kill wind energy," Doll said. "But I really feel as time goes on there's more of us that understand the importance of having alternative sources of energy."
Both legislative candidates expressed their passion for their constituents, and indicated they won't be beholden to any organization for not voting the "right" way.
"People can say whatever they want about me, but I don't think anybody can question my passion for Garden City," Doll said. "People ask are you conservative, are you liberal? I'm a localist. I really don't care if I offend some group in Topeka or Kansas City or anywhere else."
Jennings said he shares the values of the people he represents, as reflected by his voting record.
"I have a voting record that can be examined and that's what sets me apart from my opponent. He is completely unknown," Jennings said. "I'm not at all ashamed about what I've done the past two years, and I'll work at it, and I'll take the time to do the best I can."