By JAMES BELL
VICTORIA—Two years ago, the Ellis County Commission voted to obstain from paying dues to the Northwest Kansas Planning and Development Commission, ending access to their services for cities in the county.
But after last week's Victoria City Council meeting, two of the three major cities in Ellis County – Ellis and Victoria have opted to independently join the area economic development organization.
Executive director Randy Hrabe first shared with the council the situation that has led to the group asking cities in the county to sign up while the county remains a non-member.
We "ran into an issue two years ago when Ellis County decided not to pay their dues," Hrabe said. "And so they didn't get some of the services that were available."
He said the Ellis County Commission at the time questioned the return on investment for Ellis County, while they were the group's largest source of dues income.
Along with those concerns, a tight budget led the county to offer a smaller amount in terms of dues for the year.
The NWKPDC Board of Directors met that action by clarify to the county that if full dues are not paid, a county would no longer receive voting rights.
So, in turn, Ellis County paid no dues that year, effectively ending their membership in the group.
BUT WHAT ABOUT ELLIS…
With Ellis historically being by far the largest beneficiary of the services of the NWKPDC, they worked with the board from the group over several months to solidify their entry outside of the county membership.
The board decided that for a municipality to join the membership would be a minimum of $3,500 annually.
Ellis signed up, citing many of the city's projects, including a new city pool, that had been significantly subsidized by grants obtained by the NWKPDC.
Hrabe noted even more recently as an example of the benefits of membership that Ellis received a COVID grant for local businesses while Victoria and Hays missed out.
"The city of Ellis got $150,000 because they paid $3,500," Hrabe said.
One of the main reasons Ellis has been about to tap in to NWKPDC services centers around an eligibility requirement for Community Development Block Grants, Hrabe said.
A significant amount of grants funded through the NWKPDC are CBDG Grants. Those grants often rely on income requirements. To get those requirements, a survey – commonly referred to as an LMI survey must be completed.
To quality for many of those grants, the majority of recipients must be reside under an average income threshold for the area the project will service.
Due to the average income reported for the cities being higher than the threshold, in the past, Hays and Victoria have failed to qualify for the bulk of the grants the NWKDPC could secure.
But Hrabe told the council event without the LMI, the city would benefit from joining and would qualify for a variety of community improvement projects.
"Victoria does qualify for certain aspects of it," Hrabe said. "If you do the whole city all at once, you may not qualify, but you may qualify by doing an LMI survey and different things."
There is a national objective in low to moderate-income for most projects, but there are some projects that you can do that do not require it, said Corina Cox, NWKPDC economic development director.
For the full benefit, the surveys must be completed and represent a majority of the city population. But that has been problematic in Victoria, city council members shared with Hrabe.
"Our problem has never been where we're at, our problem has always been getting surveys back. People here don't fill out surveys. No matter what we've done," said city council member Zach Katzenbach. "It doesn't work."
Cox suggested incentivizing participation as much as possible, while Hrabe suggested letting residents know the potential benefit to the city if just 51 percent of residents complete the survey.
Despite previous difficulty getting surveys completed, council member Harland Rupp noted recent infrastructure projects in the city may encourage participation.
"The only reason I think this time that we have a fair chance is because we have done a lot last year," Rupp said. "People are starting to see improvements."
Among the infrastructure development conversations permeating the town, the potential of a multiuse facility taking root in the former rest home in the heart of the city and a Greenway trail that would provide a walking/riding path connecting the city's attractions has driven the conversation for Victoria to take a similar path as Ellis and join independently of the county.
Rest homeowner Jeff Pfeifer spoke at the meeting about the necessity of grants to move those projects forward. A project Hrabe said his organization could support if the city was a member of the NWKPDC.
"It looked like a good project to me," Hrabe said. "I mean, it's a way of taking an old facility and turning it into something for your community."
But without grants, Pfeifer said the project would likely never come to fruition.
"We're not going to go to a bank to get a loan," he said. "We're not going to get investors. We have to have grants. The whole concept that we're building on is to get some grant stacking, two or three grants. … That's the only way it's going to happen. And these grants are going to have to be sponsored or applied for, by the city.”
"So we're going to need help on that," he continued. "We're gonna need letters of support from the city, because that looks better on the grant that the city is supporting (it). That, and I don't have that expertise these guys do."
Cox said plans for the facility are in line with many of the funding avenues they facilitate, with funding for multiple projects available as a part of the full plan.
And Pfeifer said he believes the community has shown support for the effort.
"You've seen the people come into the meetings, this community is interested in the rest home building," Pfeifer said.
With that interest, he said he believed the community, this time, would fill out the LMI surveys and give Victoria the potential to receive similar grants that have powered substantial development in Ellis in recent years.
And the cost to make the attempt being so low, Rupp said it was worth the cost.
"That's peanuts because we just said we're going to match the city's club for $2,500, and they will come up with $2,500. So what is another $1,000 a year," he said. "$3500 isn't going to break us. It might give us time to study this and see how we can keep going forward as a community in growing it and redeveloping."
And the council agreed, ultimately voting 3-2 to join the NWKPDC, with dues totaling $3,500 for the year.
Before wrapping up, Cox told the council, now "you guys just have to let me know what your highest priority is."