Five questions posed by 2009 CCCHS graduate Anthony Meals at the city's budget hearing last night generated a lot of discussion of what the Clay Center City Council should do, but did not change the budget the council finally approved for submission to the state.
The council approved the budget as it was published on Aug. 6, with a 2.27 mill increase and a total levy of 55.953 mills for 2010. Not counting the library's increase, which made up most of the increase, the city's mill levy is proposed to increase 0.019 mills in 2010.
Meals, the son of Councilman Sterling Meals, first asked the council if there were one thing they could do that would result in a savings for the city, what would it be.
Mayor Sharon Brown said buying a crack sealer for the city would save the city money because although the crack sealer is expensive, it is far less to seal cracks on streets than it is to replace the street because of deterioration caused by not sealing cracks.
Councilman Daton Hess said one savings his constituents have approached him about is to not be paying the mayor a salary now that the city has a city administrator.
Councilwoman McKenna Porter said the city administrator will save money by pulling together department heads and not having the lack of communication the city had without a city administrator.
"Before they pave the road they will fix the water line," she said, giving an example of a lack of communication that had occurred in front of her house when city crews tore up a newly paved street to fix a water line. "In the long run (the city administrator) will help save money."
Sterling Meals said he saw a lot of duplication in the city government that could be reduced, such as in police department services that are also offered by the Sheriff's Department. The city could save up to $500,000 by "consolidating" city police with county law enforcement, replacing vehicles with motorcycles and bicycles and other such measures, he said.
"No one's talking about it because it's taboo, but maybe it shouldn't be taboo," Meals said. "Significant savings could be made there if we take a serious look at it."
Councilman Steve Fox said doing away with the brush pile and mulch service at the sewer plant is an area where the city could reduce staff and save money, if the public were willing to do without that service. That generated discussion on other city services that don't make money, including recycling and the city pool, which some said could be run more like a business.
Anthony Meals criticized the council for raising the city's budget 31 percent in times of economic hardship. He counted the Public Utilities increase to pay for the water plant as part of the budget.
"There are times you should grow, but sometimes when you grow (the budget), that's not good," he said.
City Administrator Cheryl Beatty said the city's budget is actually down a little, not counting the library or Public Utilities. General fund expenditures are down about $46,000, from $2.77 million in 2009 to $2.73 million in 2010.
Fox asked Anthony Meals if he wanted to see the city grow or to back off.
"It sounds like to me you do not necessarily want the city to go anywhere," Fox said. Fox quoted a local, "successful businessman" who said: "When everyone walks, you run and when everyone runs, you walk."
Fox said the city should be careful "not to pull back just because of the perceived economic recession."
Anthony Meals asked what the city will do to prepare and plan for growth.
Beatty said she will interview all department heads, set priorities and come up with a five-year capital improvement plan the budget will be based on.
"It's difficult for councils to stick with that (plan), but it's also the best way to do (the budget)," Beatty said.
Sterling Meals said he supported that kind of planning and recommended it be extended to strategic planning as well as capital improvements.
Fox agreed the city should plan for growth.
"If we stay the same, we're dying," he said. "We should fight to keep the mill levy level, but we should plan for biannual increases in taxes for growth."
Anthony Meals asked what financial incentives the city would offer to college graduates, young families and new businesses to locate to Clay Center.
"My dream job is to able to offer outdoor ecological tours throughout the state," Meals said. "What are you going to offer to encourage me to come back to Clay Center?"
Fox said he hoped Meals would want to come back to Clay Center because it's a nice place to live, not because of the incentives.
"I don't think it's up to me to fund your cotton picking business," he said.
Councilman Justin Begnoche said not all council members felt that way, that the city did offer some incentives by supporting the Clay County Economic Development Group.
Begnoche said he's heard a lot of complaints from young people about the city pool and that Clay Center residents are going to other communities to swim in their pools. He hoped the city will be able to attract those people back by building a new pool.
Anthony Meals also asked what marketing the city is doing to promote Clay Center. Beatty said that no dollars are set aside in the budget for marketing, but marketing is done by the Chamber of Commerce and the mayor.
The city council also:
-- discussed eliminating the mayor's salary. The council reached a consensus that it should be considered three months before the next mayoral election.
-- accepted the 2008 audit. Auditor Jason Hood said the audit found no major violations, but saw a few cash violations where certain funds had been overspent when they should have instead been taken from the general fund. City Clerk Calvin Wohler said this happened because of the different rules in handling NRP. Beatty said that will be more closely monitored and can be fixed with a budget amendment at the end of the year.
-- approved an electrical license for Linder Electric and a building permit for a 585 square-foot metal building for the meat locker at 212 6th St.
-- adopted standard traffic and uniform offense code ordinances recommended by the Kansas League of Municipalities.
-- rejected Beatty's proposal to conduct meetings according to League standards.
-- directed Beatty to approach the current agricultural lessee of the airport about renewing the lease. The lease is currently at $10,000 for 100 acres.