Trust in government has been short-circuited
Four pages OF this week’s paper are in color. The rest, including this one, are black and white. That’s unfortunate in a symbolic sense. Issues we’s about to deal with are far from black and white. A few might even provoke colorful responses.
For several weeks, we’ve been worrying about whether Marion’s city council and taxpayers are getting the whole story or just whatever part of it leads them to accept conclusions key officials already have reached.
In journalism, a long-standing mantra is to follow the money. Official answers to the questions about what happened to $2 million that past city councils tried to set aside to pay for needed upgrades to the city’s electric system fail to allay our concerns.
The upgrades are desperately needed. Aging portions of the grid have become so coostered and antiquated that businesses and homeowners can’t rely on city power. There even have been rumors of a threat to disconnect Marion from the regional power grid because problems here have fed back and taken down service to other communities.
It’s clear Marion needs to spend whatever it takes to fix the problem. Kansas Power Pool, which will issue bonds and help guide the project, thinks it may cost considerably less than the $4.3 million currently forecast. Whether it does or doesn’t, Marion needs to undertake the work.
What taxpayers don’t need is to be forced into accepting 20 years of debt without voting to do so. They also need better answers than what, for lack of a better word, was an outright lie regarding why 10 years of savings for the project went for naught.
All those year-end comments that the city had sufficient cash on hand to pay extravagant raises far exceeding the cost of living echo ominously.
The blank-check power granted to manipulate the city’s already too-high electric rates, supposedly by doing things the city itself can’t do, is yet another concern.
All of this makes even the most trusting of citizens wonder whether other actions make sense.
Turning recreation programs over to the school district is long overdue. Every other town in the county that has a recreation program does it though a district much larger than the city itself and generally is contiguous with the school district serving that community.
Every one of those communities also seems to have more recreational offerings than Marion, which serves not just residents of the city but residents of surrounding areas that are part of the Marion-Florence school district.
The idea, however, of simply ceding a large chunk of real estate, apparently for free, and of not even considering whether to continue to pay a city rec director raises the question of whether these issues actually have been considered and lack of specifics is evidence that certain officials aren’t ready to let their conclusions be known because they haven’t yet figured out how to “spin” them.
Perhaps the deal would involve eliminating $100,000-a-year payments that the city tried to welch on for the community pool or, perhaps, the salary and benefits for the city’s rec director — a pretty fair start at coming up with the $200,000 needed to pay interest on bonds for the electric upgrade.
But what about all the money the city makes off selling electricity at a profit, sticking it to less affluent taxpayers by charging a kilowatt-hour rate far greater than Hillsboro’s and massively greater private utilities’?
Isn’t that the money we should have been saving to pay for this upgrade? Or will the already too-high rates be increased, either through the blank-check rate adjustment or a direct additional charge, once bonds actually are issued.
That’s about the time at which the city also will have to begin paying for a massive — and quite needed — upgrade to the city’s water system.
Both are essential projects. Both probably call for increasing the property tax levy at some point. But do voters feel confident that such increases actually are necessary, or are they worried about what might have been hidden from them?
It’s not just the $2 million that has been lost. It’s public trust. If that isn’t restored — and soon — the ultimate cost will be far more than higher taxes, higher electric bills, and higher water bills.
— ERIC MEYER
Last modified May 6, 2021