County consultant urges cooperation over competition

Thomas Brown asked people attending a strategic planning survey report meeting Monday, Aug. 22, what they wanted Marion County to be.

The reply kept coming back from the people for better roads and more effort at economic development.

Brown, a consultant with Savant Services at McPherson, reminded the crowd of more than 20 persons who joined the Marion County Commission in its courthouse meeting room that the gathering wasn’t called to take complaints on land use.

Brown said the commission needs public input on what the county “wants to turn into” to give to the Kansas Department of Commerce for developing an enterprise zone.

“What can we do in the next three years to get where you want to be?” he asked. “How can we close the gap from here to there?”

Brown said from his surveys and observations he has noted that Marion County “is a very competitive county.” He said the cities compete with each other. The north end of county is competitive with the south end, and so on.

He warned that the county needs to “pull together to come to a vision so you can complement each other.”

Brown said another competitive agricultural county he has looked at that reminded him of Marion County was Osceola County in Florida, “before Disney World.”

Brown noted there also is a strong element that lists preserving the quality of life here as a main goal.

In going through demographic surveys that compared Marion County with its neighbors, Brown said this county has the highest percentage of older people compared to younger people, which further reduces the number of persons being born.

“You can disappear faster,” he said.

Of six adjoining counties, Marion County had the highest percentage of population over 21 (71 percent), and the highest percentage of population over 65 (21 percent).

Only Chase County is declining in population faster.

Marion County also is the lowest-income county with a per capita figure at $21,100 annually. Chase County easily exceeded that at $29,800. Morris County was barely higher at $23,000.

Participants at the meeting wondered what would happen to any growth in commuting families once gasoline tops $3 a gallon.

On a strategic planning survey questionnaire distributed through the commission, 15 areas of concern rated index numbers of 4 or above, according to importance.

These included:

— citizen input for multi-year road renovation and repair;

— lake and reservoir needs for quality and algae;

— information on transfer station use and waste management needs;

— effective and efficient use of tax revenue;

— coordinate county budget, audit and strategic plan into one continuous process for financial accountability;

— develop spirit of cooperation with county and local officials;

— encourage youth to enter the workplace in Marion County;

— develop a program for population increase;

— improve the tax environment of the county;

— create more collaboration and involvement of citizens;

— seek additional shopping opportunities;

— seek assistance for existing businesses;

— seek industry to complement agriculture for more jobs;

— improve comprehensive land-use plan.

Harry Bennett of Marion, who has worked for Saint Luke Hospital, pointed out that the county’s aging population creates special problems for medical providers. He said the federal Medicare program pays below real costs for the elderly, which leaves providers with treating them at under cost.

Max Hayen, a Marion city commissioner, said the nursing homes have the same types of problems, which has led to some home closures or pressures to close.

Nick Nickelson of Marion said it’s difficult to attract development from adjoining counties with a levy of more than 50 mills when the others go down around 35. He said Marion County needs to expand its tax base.

Bennett said the county has a high percentage of home ownership, and noted that while the group is calling for more development, there still is something commendable in a place where a person making only $8 an hour still has a hope of buying a home.

Among survey comments read by Brown were:

— calls for allowing more home sites on small acreages in rural areas, including charging county fees for such sites;

— support for bringing in wind electrical generating farms;

— desires for more restaurants;

— support for economic development and jobs;

— support for hospitals and more road improvement, including some calls for contracting with outside companies to help with road work.

Other comments, some of them unusual, called for establishment of a pet cemetery, of mass transit, of a county-owned taxi service, of class C and D landfills, and of an investigation to see if some interests are blocking new business.

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