City spending, transfers decried

By RICHARD LUKEN
Register Reporter

While speaking mainly in generalities publicly, Iola commissioners have reached consensus when discussing the city’s 2010 budget: They are loathe to approve any property tax increase.
But with that in mind, Commissioner Craig Abbott sounded another alert Tuesday — that the budget should not become overly dependent on the city’s electric fund reserves.
“We’re cheating the consumer if we take too much from the electric fund reserves,” Abbott said when commissioners met Tuesday. “We’re treating it as a tax. It’s not a tax. We cannot continue to transfer funds in order to make major improvements to the city.”
For years, the city has relied in part on utility fund transfers to its general fund in order to keep property taxes static.
Preliminary budget figures crafted by City Administrator Judy Brigham and Assistant City Administrator Corey Schinstock include a property tax levy of about 37 mills.
Abbott said in light of the recent economic crisis affecting cities and states across the country, Iola should either find alternative sources of revenue or, what he’d prefer, cut back on spending.
Brigham said the electric fund transfer, estimated at about $825,000 for 2010, is about 8 percent of what the city expects to bring in through electricity sales. Of that, $100,000 goes to Iola’s parks and recreation departments.
Brigham refuted Abbott’s contention that the city’s dependence on transfers had adversely affected the electric fund. The fund’s balance as of Tuesday was $6.6 million, she noted.
Iola had $10,598,000 in electric sales in 2008 and transferred $725,000 to the city’s general fund.
“Utility reserves, with the exception of our water fund, are strong,” Brigham said.
“The thing is, we’re not building our reserves,” Abbott countered. “With no interest rates, you can’t really make your money work for you. I’m afraid that we cannot continue to provide the services we’ve provided for the past 20 years at the same cost. Nowhere else in life is that the case.”
Commissioners agreed to meet again at 3 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to continue budget discussions.

THE ELM Creek Community Garden has flourished — literally — in 2009, Carolyn McLean told commissioners.
The garden, near McLean’s home on South First Street, features 41 plots, all of which were rented this year.
Armed with $17,222 in grant funds from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, ECCG is purchasing a garden tractor with attachments, top soil and materials for another water hydrant. The plan is to develop another 40 garden plots, McLean said, including several accessible to handicapped users. Other plots will be for low- and moderate-income families who cannot afford the $20 rental fee, McLean said.
McLean requested help from the city to install the second water hydrant. Commissioners were unanimous in approving her request.
McLean noted that the garden board received assistance from Thrive Allen County in pursuit of the Health Care Foundation grant.

FORMER commissioner Lee Gumfory spoke about clean-up work he and other volunteers are doing west of the Neosho River bridge. The land is owned by the city and is a popular fishing and gathering spot.
“We don’t want to cost the city a penny,” he said.
Gumfory appreciated help the volunteers received from Allen County crews under the direction of Public Works Superintendent Bill King. County workers recently deposited several large boulders to block off private land to the west, and to provide a safer parking area along the rocky riverbank.
He decried the city’s initial reaction to hearing that county crews were involved with the project and wondered why it took several days for city crews to pick up trash the volunteers collected and placed in piles.
The reason the city did not pick up the trash at first, City Administrator Judy Brigham responded, was because nobody asked.
“We didn’t know who was out here doing (the cleanup),” she said.
Keeping the area clean has been the city’s responsibility, Maness acknowledged, “and we neglected it.” The city will be more vigilant, Maness said.
In addition, Iola police officers and Allen County deputies will regularly patrol the area to discourage illegal activity.
“I think what you’re doing is a marvelous thing,” Abbott said. “I think Bill King did a marvelous thing. If there are things we can do to help, we’ll do so if you just ask.”
Maness agreed.
“Nobody appreciates the efforts of volunteers more than I do,” Maness said. “If somebody needs help, all they have to do is call and ask. What we need is more direct communication and less barbershop chatter.”
Since the cleanup, the city placed a trash dumpster that will be emptied on a weekly basis, Brigham said.
Gumfory had a few other requests of the city, such as a street light “to make the area visible 24 hours a day” and a pair of picnic tables.
“What you need to realize is this park is the first thing people see when they come into town,” Gumfory said, “and it’s the last thing they see when they leave.”
Commissioners said they would consider the requests.