By BECKY KISER
Hays City Commission candidates talked about the most pressing issues facing the city, how to create more jobs, and the strengths they each would bring to the commission table if elected, during Tuesday’s forum at Fort Hays State University.
The event, hosted by the FHSU Student Government Association, Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and Midwest Energy, drew an audience of about 65 people who submitted their own questions to the candidates.
There are five people running for the three open positions on the Hays city commission in the Nov. 7 general election.
The candidates are Chris Dinkel, marketing coordinator for High Plains Mental Health Center and an adjunct history professor at FHSU; incumbent Sandy Jacobs, executive director of the Heartland Community Foundation; John Mayers, a realtor with Landmark Realty and an employee of Westhusing’s, Inc., Stockton; incumbent and current mayor Shaun Musil, owner of Paisley Pear Wine Bar, Bistro & Market; and Dustin Roths, owner of Diamond R Jewelry. This is the first time Dinkel, Mayers and Roths have run for a political office.
Three main topics dominated the forum–the need for affordable housing, declining sales tax revenues and economic growth. The city’s general fund is financed solely by city sales tax receipts. Hays is the only city in Kansas to operate that way.
Moderator Emily Brandt, SGA president, asked the candidates how they would develop opportunities to attract more people and businesses to invest in Hays and remain in the community.
“It’s difficult to do that while actually sitting at the commission table,” answered Jacobs. “I think we need a serious case of collaboration in this community.
“We need collaboration between the university, HaysMed, the city and Ellis County. I truly believe if you put all those people behind the door and don’t let them come out until they can be ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’, I think you’ll come up with some amazing solutions. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.
“What the city can do is look at everything that comes to the table, every deal on its own merit. If it requires incentives to make it happen, we look at the plan. As a commission we can continue to encourage people to come to the table and consider our community, especially our quality of life here,” Jacobs added.
During a later question, Dinkel suggested representatives of the city, county and Hays USD 489 “attend each others meetings. Nobody knows where the other is coming from,” he contends.
As a longtime community volunteer, Jacobs said she knows how to “build consensus” and knows “the right people to help make that happen.”
“Most of the businesses that we’re going to recruit are going to ask for something from the city,” said Mayers, “things like tax abatements, TIFs (Tax Increment Financing), free infrastructure. So the big thing is, the community would need to be behind that. They would have to agree to give up something.
“I don’t believe in a blank check,” he emphasized. “It’s got to be on a case-by-case basis. You need to ask they questions like whether they have a valid business plan, how many employees are they going to hire and what kind of wages are they going to pay. What will we as a community get back out of out? Does it fill a need?”
Mayers previously worked in the oil field but was laid off when oil prices began a dramatic downward trend and there were fewer hours of work available to him. He wants to represent the “middle-class, blue-collar worker who lives paycheck to paycheck” on the Hays city commission. He describes himself as a “realist.”
“I think there’s opportunities out there, and I think there are opportunities we missed out on. The city may be ‘inviting’ but there’s only so many times we can turn down those opportunities before you don’t get any more,” Mayers concluded.
Roths opened his jewelry store six years ago. It’s now in a third, larger location in downtown Hays. He puts some of the blame on the state’s economic policies.
“I feel like the state of Kansas has made it tough on us for job creation in Hays over the last legislative session,” Roths said.
“I feel like the best way to bring business people to Hays, to give them a reason to be in Hays in general, is to figure out a way to lower their tax burden,” he contends. “Whether that comes from TIFs or CIDs (Community Improvement Districts), these are taxes they put on their customers, at least a consumption tax.
“Sometimes it’s just about being in a ‘good economic atmosphere.’ “If we can make the ‘atmosphere’ seem like you can be successful in Hays and that we have a workforce that’s ready to go to work, I believe businesses will come here and help diversify our economy.”
Roths is a conservative and supports less government along with limited spending.
“Otherwise, if we can’t figure out a way to make their tax burden less than other communities our size, the only other reason to be in Hays is how great our people are,” Roths said, “and we can’t rely on that for everything.”
Incumbent Mayor Musil believes the city “does a poor job of selling ourselves to others.” He looks for more marketing of the town’s assets and its convenient location.
As a new small business owner, Musil said he has “learned how to adapt and go on.” Musil has been a part-time Uber driver for some time, most often picking up airport passengers.
“People from all over the country come to Hays and talk about how great our town is, how clean it is, and how nice we are.
“I think sometimes we stumble over ourselves, complaining about what we don’t have. If we would just step up and say ‘look how good we really are,’ and keep doing that, I think you’d be amazed how many people want to come here.
“Our CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) does a tremendous job. The Chamber does a great job,” Musil acknowledged. “Being a downtown owner now it just blows my mind how many people just stop here off the Interstate. To me, that’s a huge asset for our community.”
Dinkel was the final candidate to answer Brandt’s question.
“I think part of the problem with this is we hear the same things over, and over, and over again, yet we haven’t figured out ways to actually address them.
“We’ve heard that real estate is just too high,” Dinkel said, “and we can’t offer enough tax incentives to get businesses like those locating in Garden City because the Hays land prices are absurd. Or that we’re losing people to other cities because housing is too expensive.
“We need to start getting creative in the incentives that we offer. Maybe we figure out ways to incentivize selling, to make it more worthwhile to these landowners sitting on these outrageously priced parcels of land to actually get rid of it,” he suggested.
“Maybe we need some sort of incentive to build houses people can actually afford. We don’t need to drop real estate price across the board to be able to do that. We need inventory in that cost area where people can buy a first home. People aren’t going to come here and rent for 30 years.
“These problems aren’t going away,” Dinkel said, and added “We need to figure out ways to address the root cause of them.”
The two people with the highest number of votes will be elected to four-year terms. The person with the third highest vote total will serve a two-year term. The mayor is selected by the commission members.
Advance voting begins Mon., Oct. 23 in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main, Hays, through noon Mon., Nov. 6. Polls for the Tue., Nov. 7 general election are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. throughout Ellis County.