County Needs To Take Lead On 4-H Facility At Former Honor Camp

By Lee White

Followers of our Facebook page may remember this story from The Hutchinson News. The story said the state was preparing to tear down the long-vacant honor camps at Toronto and El Dorado. In the case of the El Dorado facility, located just east of town on Twelfth Avenue, Butler County had sought to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land, transfer the long-term lease from the state to the county so it could be used as a headquarters and fairgrounds for the 4-H program. How diligently the county sought the lease transfer is a matter for debate. Diligence was apparently lacking because the Corps declined to transfer the lease.

Until its closure in 2009, the camp benefited the inmate population, the state park, and local governments by engaging low-risk prisoners in work programs and even wildlife rehabilitation. Click here to view a story about the Honor Camp that appeared in the Los Angeles Times almost 32 years ago.

Add it to the list of riches the State of Kansas has squandered. A scant decade ago, Kansas’ fiscal policy — particularly its cash-basis law, which limits borrowing — was a model pundits contrasted with that of debt-ridden California. Today, California is thriving and Kansas is reeling from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts that didn’t draw enough new businesses or people to the state to cover revenue losses.

Brownback’s tax cuts were not matched by spending cuts. If they had been, the fiscal crisis that led to the Legislature reinstating income and corporate taxes over Brownback’s veto might have been averted, but the fallout would have been catastrophic. That’s because so many Kansans rely on “government cheese” for their livelihoods. This is especially true in rural areas where school districts dependent on subsidies from Topeka are often the only act in town.

Butler County has more going for it than other parts of Kansas. It is right next to Wichita, yet there seems to be an anti-Wichita mentality and an inability on the part of its leadership to grasp the concept that as Wichita goes, so goes Butler County. Beyond that, making the county attractive to families is a task that has fallen to the cities. Andover does it best, but Augusta and El Dorado are falling in line. Rose Hill is a sleeping giant that would thrive if its leaders could ever quit fighting among themselves.

The county long ago adopted land use policy that encourages people to live in cities. Although I agree with the policy — allowing a bunch of five-acre lots down every road would overburden county services — I believe the county’s role in economic development and promoting the kind of “quality of place” improvements that would spur growth of the tax base has atrophied in recent years.

People complain about the burgeoning drug culture in Butler County, yet they elect leaders who apparently weren’t aggressive enough in selling the Corps on a facility upgrade for 4-H that might save a few kids from becoming part of that seedy world. Residents elect leaders who say there’s no money for a drug task force, yet spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars a year propping up a jail that has failed to attract enough prisoners from outside agencies to pay for itself amid chronic staffing shortages. Meanwhile, Harvey County — with far fewer residents and a smaller tax base — somehow scrapes together enough to restart its drug task force and little ol’ Chase County houses so many federal immigration detainees that Uncle Sam pays for its entire corrections budget.

What’s wrong with this picture, folks? How come these adjoining counties can get the job done with far fewer resources? I can’t wait to hear the litany of excuses and red herrings, “you don’t live here” chief among them.

Maybe I labor under a misguided sense of duty to the few friends I have left in Butler County and to the legacies of guys who are no longer with us such as Dave Clymer, publisher of The El Dorado Times, and Sen. Frank Gaines. The former is the reason El Dorado Lake exists and that the City of El Dorado controls most of the water rights. The latter is the reason El Dorado State Park exists. Gaines struck a deal: If El Dorado would take the Honor Camp, he’d get his fellow legislators to fund a really nice state park. He may have been a Democrat, but Gaines delivered on his promise. As it turned out, the Honor Camp was almost as big a benefit as the state park and the inmates sure kept said park well-maintained.

Whatever the motive, I penned this letter to Brig. Gen. Paul E. Owen, commander and division engineer of the Southwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Dallas. It is my sincere hope that Gen. Owen will instruct his subordinates to take another look at transferring the Honor Camp lease from the state to the county so plans for a new 4-H facility can move forward. But if that happens, it will be up to Butler County officials to gather a delegation and make their case to the Corps. If they can’t be bothered to “seize the day,” then the voters of Butler County need to replace the three commissioners who are up for re-election this year, especially given the fact that there are myriad other reasons to do so.

El Dorado’s City Manager Search Presents Opportunities, Challenges

By Lee White

I’ve been observing local government in El Dorado for a long time. The very first news story I ever wrote was for the Butler Community College Lantern in 1981 and concerned the untimely death of Mayor Max G. Main. In the ensuing 35 years, El Dorado has had only four city managers: Dick Chesney, Stan Stewart, Gus Collins, and Herb Llewellyn. Although I’m often the town’s harshest critic, that’s a record to be proud of.

“Last two years and you’ll have the best job in Kansas,” the late Mr. Stewart wrote in an e-mail to Collins. Of course, Collins didn’t, but that’s a story for another day. What that statement says, however, is that the position of El Dorado city manager had value and importance beyond what it might have had in a city of similar size. I believe that’s as true today as it was a dozen years ago. As the city commission begins the process of hiring Llewellyn’s replacement, it will be important to market the uniqueness of the community and to demand that candidates possess the skills and education to handle an organization with more “moving parts” than most other cities its size.

Particularly during Llewellyn’s tenure, the city’s role has expanded beyond basic services such as utilities, streets, and police and fire protection. El Dorado extended its reach from industrial parks into residential real estate with acquisition at a tax sale of lots in the Constant Creek development on the west side. BG Products Veterans Sports Complex has undoubtedly elevated the community’s image regionally, but nothing’s free. Technically, a new governmental entity called the “sports authority” runs the place, but it collects little revenue of its own. It depends on funding from the college, USD 490, and the City of El Dorado as illustrated in this recent Times-Gazette story about maintenance costs.

Then there’s Prairie Trails, the old El Dorado Country Club, that the city acquired in 2010 and has heavily subsidized with tax dollars and labor ever since. Recently, the city bought more golf carts and reconstructed the front nine greens. There is certainly an argument to be made that a golf course is an important community amenity and an economic development “draw;” however, the facility has been frightfully expensive for a town of El Dorado’s size to operate. Factor in stagnant wages, an overabundance of golf courses in the Wichita area, and waning interest in golf nationally and there exists for any city manager a real political and financial challenge.

Topeka presents what is the worst sort of issue for local government and business alike: instability. Although voters sent packing several of Gov. Sam Brownback’s uber-conservative supporters in the Kansas Legislature, political turbulence is likely for years to come. Funding, particularly for infrastructure projects and social services, will be scarce as lawmakers struggle to balance the budget. It will take at least one more election cycle to determine which direction voters will take the state.

Without a doubt, the El Dorado city manager’s job is not one for amateurs. Now is not the time to try any “bold experiments.” The successful candidate must be educated. A master’s degree in public administration is essential. He or she must have experience formulating budgets and managing multiple subordinates either as a city or county manager in a relatively smaller setting or as an assistant in a larger one. A couple of examples come to mind. Stewart was city manager of Abilene before accepting the El Dorado position. Kathy Sexton was assistant Sedgwick County manager before becoming Derby’s city manager.

I encourage city commissioners to avail themselves of the League of Kansas Municipalities’ interim city manager program if that becomes necessary. The plan is to utilize a search firm to find Llewellyn’s permanent replacement and that’s a great idea.

Although I understand some candidates feel the need to keep their job searches secret, I would encourage the commission to introduce two or three finalists to the public. Commissioners also need to make sure that the baggage a candidate has is acceptable. Don’t rely on the headhunter to research the applicants’ backgrounds. At the very least, Google them and search their local newspaper for stories about them.

To someone who has been away for awhile, El Dorado looks better than it has in years. The trick will be to catch a rising star as city manager to keep the momentum going. To potential applicants reading this blog post, I encourage you to accept the challenges I’ve outlined. El Dorado, by virtue of its broad range of programs, could provide you with a wealth of experience you just couldn’t get even in a somewhat larger city.