Prepared to deliver in 2002

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If you’re looking for obvious evidences of progress initiated by city government in 2001, like new buildings or development projects, you won’t find many.

That doesn’t mean city government didn’t accomplish a lot in 2001, say city leaders. It just means most of those accomplishments are beyond obvious public view.

“2001 was just a year that doesn’t show,” said Mayor Delores Dalke. “It’s underground. It’s in places where people can’t say, ‘Look at the new businesses along the highway or look what happened there.’ This year it was things that needed to be done-but you can’t always see them.”

A lot of those changes had to do with the way the city offices and departments operated under the management of Steven Garrett, who in 2001 completed his first full year as city administrator-and the first full year in quite some time that the city even had such a position.

“I think it has made a tremendous difference insofar that the public knows who they can talk to, who they can meet with if they have concerns-and it will get results,” Dalke said about the new office.

“In the past, people have called council members or the mayor-they still do, and they’re still welcome to,” she added. “However, we’re not the hands-on people. We’re the policy makers.

“Consequently, because Steve is there, he’s in a position to answer questions, and, if the staff is able to help, he’s in a position to get it done. So I just feel like it’s been a tremendous help to the city and to the citizens having him here.”

“It seems to going well,” Garrett agreed, “although I’m not always patient in the changes I want to implement.”

He said his first priority has been to address relationships between city employees and the city council as well as between the public and the city.

“Those are things that take time,” he said. “I think we’ve determined now who is going to make what call and when. Once you’ve set that stage, then you can begin working on the larger things.”

Capital-improvement plan

One of those larger things is the creation and implementation of a capital-improvement plan in the next month or so. The plan will outline specific improvement projects within the city according to need and funding.

“It’s essentially taking an inventory of the problem areas in the city, then placing it in front of the city council and making priorities,” Garrett said. “We don’t have an endless supply of money. We probably have enough things to work on for a four- or five-year span.”

That’s different than how the city has operated in the past, Garrett said.

“Without a capital-improvement plan, you may have good intentions of getting to an area that you know is a problem, but then you’re putting out all these other fires that come up,” he said.

In addition to setting project priorities, having the plan will benefit city employees and council members, Garrett said.

“It’s a tool that helps the employees know where we’re going, and it helps the council be able to concentrate on policy decisions, which is really their primary goal,” he said.

Added Dalke: “I’m really excited about having a plan. It will help us be proactive rather than reactive. It will give us a road map where we’re going in 2002-and beyond as we update it annually.”

Working “with style”

Garrett said another objective he has worked toward in his first year is to elevate the level of professionalism and customer service of city government.

Adopting a new logo for the City of Hillsboro, renovating the customer-service area in city hall, and keeping city properties clean and in good working order have been part of his agenda this past year.

“I’m proud of the front entrance (to the city offices),” he added. “I prefer a face-to-face kind of dealing with residents. In a small town, I think that’s how everyone wants it to be.

“You speak volumes nonverbally,” Garrett said. Keeping after simple maintenance issues communicates that “our customers are worth not being inconvenienced by these problems in our facilities.”

Garrett said he has also been intent on communicating an openness to public input.

“They’re the ones who are affected by what we do,” he said. “If we don’t address the problems they have, we’re only doing half our job.

“We’re supposed to make water run downhill, yes. But we want to make water run downhill with style. ‘With style’ is where we are at this point. We’re trying to work on that.”

“Select Committee” launched

One way city leaders worked intentionally to receive more public input in 2001 was by launching what has come to be known as the “Select Committee”-a group of 11 leaders from the community who have been called together to talk openly about the city’s future.

Garrett said he got the idea for such a group while attending a seminar on community economic development at Wichita State University.

“The idea of the Select Committee was to get people from different backgrounds,” he said. “The people were selected for their ability to think, reason and be a positive influence on a decision-making process.

“They do hold some of the cards in the game,” he added. “We want to know what they’re thinking so we can react better.”

Joining Garrett and Mayor Dalke on the committee are: Brad Bartel, Emprise Bank officer; Wendell Dirks, city councilor and owner of Circle D Corp.; Norman Galle, local veterinarian and chair of the Parkside Homes board of directors; Mike Kleiber, co-owner of Ag Power and Ag Service and president of the Hillsboro Development Corp.; Gordon Mohn, USD 410 superintendent; Larry Nikkel, Tabor College president; Don Ratzlaff, editor of the Hillsboro Free Press; Michael Ryan, chief executive officer of Hillsboro Community Medical Center; and Jan Schroeder, co-owner of Irv Schroeder County Motors.

Lynne McCraw Schall, from the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs, has been engaged as the group’s facilitator.

“By the time we’re finished with our work, hopefully we’ll all have an understanding how we can help each other, and maybe even where the City of Hillsboro fits in the future as far as the different needs of the groups represented,” Dalke said.

“We cannot each work on our own-it doesn’t work that way,” she added. “We’re not big enough, and the resources aren’t there for everybody to do whatever it is they think they need.

“If we can work together and know what those needs are, perhaps we’ll be able to come up with solutions so that we can combine resources to make things happen.”

New electrical substation

In February, the electrical source for the city was transferred to its new $382,360 substation.

The new facility was a significant improvement for the city because it not only will carry the electrical load required for present needs but also needs in the foreseeable future.

But the new addition has been something of a mixed blessing, Garrett said.

“The downside was that we had a new substation, and the expectations of the city was greatly increased-and we didn’t always meet those expectations,” Garrett said.

Specifically, the city still suffered several brief power outages into the fall months-something residents thought might be eliminated with the new system.

“Maybe we presented the completion of the substation as the end of our improvements,” he said. “That wasn’t the end of what we needed to do. The factors that caused the brief outages are still there.”

He said a major tree-trimming emphasis in early 2002 will eliminate branches that have enabled squirrels to run along power lines and short-circuit transformers. It will also reduce the risk of outages caused by tree limbs broken during ice or wind storms.

Water issues

One of the biggest positive developments for the city in 2001 was opening the tap in fall for water sales to the city of Peabody. The immediate impact for local residents was the the revenue generated by those sales enabled the city council to lower local residential rates by $1.25 a month.

“It has also been what has helped us work with Rural Economic Development in order to obtain the money to do upgrades at the water plant that we’ll be starting shortly,” Dalke said. “Without the sale of water to Peabody, we would not have been in a position to get that particular funding-grant piece put together.”

Those upgrades, needed to meet new state water standards and projected by Garrett to cost “a couple of million dollars,” will begin in 2002 and should stretch into 2003.

Those upgrades have been planned for some time. In the meantime, the city will soon begin an unexpected project at the water plant: repairing three large under drains that were damaged some undetermined time in the past. That project is expected to cost up to $100,000.

The problems with the drains has not affected the quality of the water produced at the plant, but has reduced the volume of water the plant is able to produce. That volume will increase in 2002 now that Hillsboro is producing water for Peabody.

A second major customer, the newly established Rural Water District No. 5, is still in the process of acquiring easements and right-of-ways.

Dalke said she doesn’t expect that project to be completed in 2002.

“I think we’re looking at another year down the road,” she said. “But we’re looking forward to doing that, too.

Sewer and solid waste

One of the mostly invisible accomplishments of 2001 would have to be the completion of the $400,000 new sewer outfall line project that lies under South Washington Street and runs underground all the way to the sewage treatment plant on the city’s south edge.

“It should help us better treat what’s coming in (to the sewer treatment plant) to stay within new regulations that are coming in all the time,” Garrett said. “And it should also be able to extend and improve the line so it flows to the sewer plant better. There have been backups in the past that were pretty ugly.”

He said the next improvement will be to raise manholes in certain areas so that rain water will not be running directly into the sewer system-which also reduce the possibilities of backup problems.

While outfall line will solve problems related to liquid wastes, the city is still in the midst of finding solutions for challenges regarding disposal of solid waste.

When the county asked the cities of Marion County to ratify a contract extension it had signed with KC Development to serve as the county’s transfer station for trash, the cities declined.

“The contract called for inflation increases as well as changes in the way local citizens are billed for solid waste and has the potential of costing our lower-income people and elderly who live in apartments more money per month,” said Dalke. “It also has the potential to raise the cost for the business community considerably.”

She joined with other mayors in the county to work with the county and KC Development to find an acceptable solution. Dalke hesitated to guess what the solution might look like.

“We would like at least to be at the table when the negotiations (with KC Development) are going on,” she said. “That would be extremely helpful because a lot of the solid waste in our county is generated within our cities.”

Added Garrett: “The key is the willingness of all parties to get in there, work out an agreement and then go with it. I’m not sure all the parties feel as strongly about that as we do.”

The city’s recycling program is one way residents can reduce their solid-waste bills. After growing each of its first four years of operation, the program plateaued in 2001 at 174 tons-the same amount recycled in 2000. (See table.)

Housing rehabilitation grant

One Hillsboro neighborhood should experience some “recycling” of sorts as the result of a $269,075 housing rehabilitation grant the city qualified for in 2001.

The money, which comes through the Kansas Small Cities Community Development Program and is administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce and Housing, will be used to make major repairs on most of the 47 homes in a four-block area on the city’s north side. A couple of abandoned houses will be demolished.

News of the grant was announced in June, and some preliminary work has been done with residents who want to participate. But Garrett wasn’t sure when the first funding might actually arrive.

“I’ve never seen a grant program that was manufactured to be so slow,” he said. “I warned the possible participants in it that it’s a government program and it will be slow. But I frankly am surprised by how slow the process is.”

Garrett is hopeful the first projects will be under way by spring.

Airport improvements

Thanks to some other government grants, significant improvements were made at the Hillsboro Municipal Airport in 2001-and more are planned for 2002.

In October, a four-inch overlay of asphalt was applied to the airport’s runway and tarmac area at a total cost of $149,000. A grant through the Kansas Department of Transportation covered 75 percent of the project and the city picked up the remaining 25 percent.

In late December, the city was officially notified that KDOT had approved Hillsboro’s application for a $63,000 grant that will pay for 90 percent of the cost to install new radio-controlled runway lights and a two-box precision-approach path indicator.

The city will cover the remaining 10 percent of the project, which will be done sometime after July 1 of this year.

Together, the two projects will give Hillsboro an outstanding airport, according to Dalke.

“It has already upgraded us to the point that more people are landing here,” she said. “They’re using it for business. It’s a great recruiting tool for businesses that are looking to come here.

“It’s just so important to have a good quality airport,” she added. “We need to remember that it also is a second source for transferring medical patients. When a helicopter does not work, single-wing aircraft can land here for the hospital.”

Recovery from fire

If any one city-related event stands out from 2001 in the public’s memory, it likely would be the July 25 fire at the city’s maintenance area.

Started by a bolt of lightning, the fire destroyed part of a maintenance shed, including three trucks from the electrical department and a sizeable inventory of supplies.

The loss was estimated at around $1 million in replacement costs. Garrett said the actual loss, given that the city purchased some used trucks instead of new ones, was closer to $750,000. Much of that was covered by insurance, but not all.

“It was very costly to the city of Hillsboro, and we will continue to pay that price for some time into the future,” Dalke said.

One of the expenses will be to replace the maintenance building that was destroyed. The building should be erected sometime this year.

“We are taking our time and will get something that we really need-and that will be better for us,” Dalke said. “We have a chance now to build what we need in 2002 rather than what we needed in the 1970s.”

New fire chief

That fire, in regard to dollars lost, turned out to be the biggest one fought by Wayne Lowry, who retired Aug. 16 after 38 years with the Hillsboro Fire Department and 26 years as department chief.

Lowry was succeeded by Ben Steketee, who was a four-year volunteer with the department.

“I’m very pleased with Ben’s enthusiasm and his ability to grab the bull by the horns and make it do what he wants it to do,” Garrett said. “I’m looking forward to working with him.

Police protection

Hillsboro Police Chief Dan Kinning reports that his department’s workload increased a bit in 2001-with the number of juvenile cases being “way up” from the previous year.

“We had a steady decrease (in crime) in 1998 and 1999, and now we’re back up a bit again,” Kinning said. “We’re still not as bad as we were in 1997. We’ve cleared a lot of cases and are filing some charges. Hopefully, the number of juvenile cases will steadily decrease again.”

For about six months, the department was without a K-9 officer after Otto, a German Shepherd drug-detecting dog, died of natural causes in May. By year’s end, Rico, a 21/2-year-old Belgian Malenois, had taken Otto’s place.

Kinning said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in New York City and Washington, D.C., had ramifications for his department, too.

“We’ve kind of been forced to change the way we think and come up with new policies regarding national security,” Kinning said. “Our concerns regard our water and utilities, and we’ve put in action some new security measures.”

He said his department now gets continuous communiques from the FBI and federal government through the department’s Internet source.

The developments of the past year haven’t changed Kinning’s assessment of his community, though.

“It’s still a good, quiet town and a good place to live,” he said. “That’s why I live here. One thing I like about Hillsboro is that we feel a great deal of community support, and that makes our job a lot easier.”

Hillsboro Heights

On the heels of 2000, when three new businesses moved into Hillsboro Heights, the light-commercial development on the city’s north side, progress in 2001 was much more subdued.

“It didn’t fill up over night, and I don’t think anyone thought it was going to,” Garrett said. “Highway-related business is what Hillsboro Heights was about, and we’re moving that way. I think it was the right step for the city to take at that time.”

The only visible change in the city-initiated development during 2001 was the erection of a new message sign along U.S. Highway 56. The project, which cost around $18,000, was financed half with donations and half with city funds.

With the decision Jan. 27 by the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church to purchase the current Vogts IGA store building and property along East Grand, city leaders are optimistic that the Vogt family will build its new and enlarged store in Hillsboro Heights during 2002.

The City of Hillsboro had considered purchasing the property for the purpose of building a new community safety center for police, fire and ambulance workers, but backed away from the idea when the church indicated its interest.

Garrett said the city is still interested in developing a new safety center in the not- too-distant future.

“That issue is not related to the (Vogt’s) property,” Garrett said. “We’re in the process of looking at places that would be large enough to fit the kind of building and parking that we’d need. We’re going to pursue it.”

Post office dedicated

One government-related achievement from 2001 that is quite visible in the community is the new post office building that was dedicated Sept. 8.

The long-anticipated facility, located at the corner of Main and First streets, has more than tripled the work space for postal employees.

“We’re not as cramped anymore,” said Postmaster Norman Bouwie. “We have more room, and we’re not cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

“We were in that old building for a long time, and there were a lot of safety hazards in the building,” he added. “Employees are much more relaxed now that we’re finally in the new building.” n

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