Schools play role in economic success
Iola’s ability to attract and retain a strong business community and potential outcomes of a successful school bond vote in April form the centerpiece of this week’s Ask The Register question.
Iolan Gary Cardell writes: “How’s the City Council attracting new business? Are there plans if the bond issue doesn’t increase growth?”
The question was posed both to Iola Mayor Jon Wells and City Administrator Sid Fleming, both of whom spoke about the city’s multi-pronged approach to economic development.
To observe what the city can offer today, one must look first at Iola’s history, Wells noted, because Iola has been blessed in the past with what he described as “visionary” leaders.
They were the ones who put in place an infrastructure that provides the city with multiple assets, in particular its utilities, the mayor continued.
For example, because Iola can generate its own electricity during peak demand time, the city traditionally has been able to procure electricity at a cheaper rate than it otherwise would spend.
That, in turn, has allowed Iola to develop and maintain its own enterprise funds, which in turn have been used to supplement Iola’s annual budget and maintain a lower property tax levy than most neighboring communities.
“I think you’ll find our electric, water and gas rates, and our mill levy are really competitive, if not better, than most places,” Wells said.
Wells also praised the makeup of the existing council, which is comprised of what he terms as both conservative and progressive members.
But there is room for improvement, Wells acknowledged.
Since the 2007 flood destroyed a series of steam-powered generators at Iola’s water plant, the city lacked the capacity to be considered a full-fledged “generating” community. In order to retain that designation, Iola has purchased electric capacity from neighboring towns, such as Chanute, each year.
Wells has been an advocate of seeing Iola take steps to restore its own generating capacity.
Several options have been discussed, including paying for additional natural-gas powered generators or teaming with Westar to install solar panels. (A feasibility study on the solar option is due to be returned to the Council sometime soon.)
Ideally, the savings from no longer having to purchase the added capacity will make up for the cost of installing new generators, Wells concluded.
UTILITIES are just one tool in the city’s quiver.
Both Wells and Fleming pointed to Iola’s participation in an economic development agreement among the city, Allen County and Iola Industries. Each of the entities pays Thrive Allen County $20,000 annually to serve as an economic development agent.
That partnership was pivotal in attracting G&W Foods to Iola in 2018.
“I see three economic development models for the city,” Wells said.
The aforementioned partnership with Thrive is geared toward large-scale economic development projects. The Iola Area Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is tailored to serving existing businesses. Finally, Iola’s work with the Small Business Development Council, through Pittsburg State University, targets home-grown entrepreneurial efforts.
Fleming pointed to recent SBDC workshops in Iola, tailored to helping get business ventures off the ground. (A workshop on Quickbooks software is planned for April 2.)
AS FOR CARDELL’S second question, a hypothetical centered on voters approving construction of a new school, but with no subsequent economic growth, both Fleming and Wells turned philosophical.
“On the surface, it sounds simple, but the answer is complex,” Fleming said. “Iola’s potential for ‘growth’ is tied to many things. I am of the belief that having quality schools is a component of the solution. Affordable, quality housing, livable wage jobs, nurturing existing businesses, cultivating new ones, and providing a sense of ‘place’ or community are also part of the solution.”
Iola City Councilman Aaron Franklin agreed, noting the city is best served by investing in infrastructure, continuing to keep costs within check for Iola’s citizens and business, and if possible, providing incentives “where it makes sense and is affordable.”
“Re-evaluating the expectation may be important,” Fleming added. “While the ultimate goal is growth, our first goal may need to be just stabilizing our population loss. There is no panacea. It takes a multi-faceted collaborative effort of the entire community working toward sustainability. What I am quite sure of, is doing nothing is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Fleming pointed to a quote from author James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
VOTING continues until midnight tonight on the next Ask The Register question.
The three choices:
— What routes can we take to Kansas City without using the designated detour? — Pat Schuetz, Coffeyville
— Why hasn’t ACRH provided mammogram services for over a year now? What has been the effect on women’s health? — Travis West, Iola
— Are there studies of how close the proposed elementary school would be to where most of our students live? — Mark Peters, Iola
Readers are encouraged to cast their vote on which topic should be covered in depth by clicking here.
Property taxes make up the centerpiece of an ongoing debate about whether USD 257 voters will support construction of a new elementary school in Iola, a new science building for Iola High School and improvements to the Iola Middle School HVAC systems.
A quick survey of neighboring communities shows where Iola and USD 257 rank in terms of how much residents pay to own property within the school district.
When combined with taxes to support other entities, including Allen County, Allen Community College and the Southwind Extension District, a resident living in Iola pays a combined 178 mills in ad valorem taxes.
If voters approve a new elementary school, the district’s levy (currently at 43 mills) would increase to about 58; adding the science building and HVAC options would tack on about 6 more.
A mill generates $1 in property taxes per $1,000 in assessed valuation.
That means the owner of a $70,000 home in Iola now pays $1,432 in combined property taxes to support the city, school district, county, college and Extension district.
If just a new elementary is approved in the April 2 school bond election, that same homeowner’s property taxes would be $1,563.
If all three measures pass, his taxes would be $1,612 a year, a $180 increase.