Thursday, December 18, 2014

Official: State shortfall, ‘fiscal cliff’ pose threats

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 12/12/2012

The challenges that lie ahead for the City of Ottawa in 2013 are primarily going to be budget-related, Richard Nienstedt predicted.

“The state is headed into the next session with a predicted $700 million-plus shortfall,” Nienstedt, Ottawa city manager, said. “If the state elects to recapture some of the tax money we receive from gasoline and alcohol sales, that would affect our streets and parks funds.”

The challenges that lie ahead for the City of Ottawa in 2013 are primarily going to be budget-related, Richard Nienstedt predicted.

“The state is headed into the next session with a predicted $700 million-plus shortfall,” Nienstedt, Ottawa city manager, said. “If the state elects to recapture some of the tax money we receive from gasoline and alcohol sales, that would affect our streets and parks funds.”

Some of the money the city receives in remitted gasoline sales tax goes into the special streets fund, while some of the tax dollars the city receives on alcohol sales go into the city’s parks fund, Nienstedt said.

“The ‘fiscal cliff’ also is going to have a bigger impact on us than most people realize, even if deals [between President Obama and Congress] are reached,” Nienstedt said. “I think if the president and Congress wanted to see how to balance the budget, they should look to local government. Local governments have to deal with these issues every day. I think we have to remember, at all levels of government, that the decisions we make touch every citizen.”

Nienstedt paused and laughed. “But you don’t see any red phone on my desk connecting me to the president or the governor.”

While the city manager might not have a direct tie-in with President Obama or Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Nienstedt is well-known throughout the state. And in January, he was named the state’s 2011 city manager of the year.

Speaking about his priorities for the coming year, Nienstedt said Ottawa residents will see a focus on making sure public facilities and city intersections are ADA compliant in 2013.

The City of Ottawa plans to form an Americans with Disabilities Act task force in the coming weeks to prioritize such ADA improvement projects.

“We want to make sure we are ADA compliant at all of our public facilities, and we are upgrading intersections around town to make them ADA compliant as well,” Nienstedt said. “There are small things most people don’t think about, like knobs on doors. A community needs to be accessible to everyone.”

The task force has yet to be assembled, but Nienstedt said it could include such members as residents with disabilities, other community members and City of Ottawa representatives. Nienstedt said city staff plan to present a proposed city ordinance at a city commission meeting in the near future that — with commission approval — would form the task force.

From his corner office on the second floor of City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa, Nienstedt talked about his goals for 2013.

In addition to establishing an ADA task force, Nienstedt said his 2013 goals also would include increasing economic development in the community and continuing to improve city streets, sidewalks and parks.

“We have had an ambitious street improvement program the past five years, and we want to continue to improve streets,” Nienstedt said.

The city’s 2013 budget includes $250,000 for capital improvements to streets, Scott Bird, the city’s finance director, told city commissioners at a study session in June.

“We will spend about $368,000 on street repairs in 2012,” Bird said, referring to slurry seal and mill and overlay work slated for this summer.

The city’s special streets fund captures gasoline tax remitted to the city from the state, Bird said, which is used for street improvement projects and other street repairs. The fund also makes transfers to cover a portion of the general obligation fund for previously issued debt for street construction, he said.

While down from 2012, the $250,000 earmark for street work in 2013 is up from the $243,099 the city spent on street repairs in 2011 and a 43 percent jump from the $143,108 the city spent on streets in 2009, according to the city’s budget numbers.

The city also has been successful in securing state funding to improve sidewalks in 2012, Nienstedt said.

That included a $200,000 project to construct “Safe Routes to School” sidewalks in the community, which wrapped at the end of November. The state covered about 80 percent of that project’s price tag, city officials said.

The city also added a handicap-accessible playground at Kanza Park, 200 W. 15th St., in October 2011, and the city’s Play Task Force is working on a project to replace the timber playground structure at Forest Park, 320 N. Locust St., Nienstedt said.

“Trails, sidewalks and playgrounds are important to a community and are used by a lot of people,” Nienstedt said.

Nienstedt said another goal in 2013 is to enhance the lines of communication between the city staff and residents.

“The governing body and city staff, myself included, need to make sure we are out there in the public and accessible to the citizens,” Nienstedt said. “It’s important that we be there to listen, listen, listen.”

A budget open house earlier this year was an example of the type of public meetings the city wants to sponsor to bring city officials and residents together — in addition to the regular twice-monthly city commission meetings, Nienstedt said.

Nienstedt, who recently received a one-year extension on his 2013 contract that now runs through 2014, became Ottawa’s city manager in October 2007, In addition to the contract extension, the city commission bumped up Nienstedt’s annual base salary from $95,000 to $99,000.

With more than 30 years’ experience as a city manager — only five of which have been in Ottawa — Nienstedt said he has followed the city’s activities throughout his career — from a professional and personal standpoint. His great-grandmother was from Wellsville, and he has several cousins in the area, he said.

“I was recently going through some old photographs with my uncle, and many of them were taken in Ottawa,” Nienstedt said. “I’ve spent my whole career in Kansas, and I’ve watched Ottawa go through a lot of changes in the past 20 years.

“Ottawa is doing better than most communities, as far as from a business and jobs standpoint, and from a location standpoint,” Nienstedt said.

When other factors — education, quality of life, engaged citizenry, active organizations, strong business climate — are factored in with potential economic development opportunities, Nienstedt said, he thinks some of Ottawa’s best days lie ahead.

“I think the future for Ottawa looks bright,” he said.

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