Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Folks occasionally ask me why we expended so much effort on the recent petition drive. The answer is easy – We did it because we care about the people of Lyon County and the impact that political decisions have on them.
I’m also asked why I’m against this merger. I remind them of the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – “Let me count the ways.”
One of the first arguments proponents of the merger made after the two to one decision was that the cost to taxpayers would be negligible. It was a political way of saying, “This is no big deal.” If they’d put their argument into the form of a logical proposition it would have read, “This is no big deal…I can afford it…Therefore, everyone can afford it.”
The logic was as bad as it was incorrect.
The cost of this merger will be higher than Extension proponents claim it will be. They inadvertently let the cat out of the bag a while back when they said this was really about increased revenues. Now they’re trying to hide that fact from the people in a flurry of misinformation.
Those of us who worked on the petition drive spent over a month going door to door, meeting fellow citizens on downtown sidewalks, watering holes, restaurants, and businesses. We saw the community needs up close and personal. We saw retired railroad workers who had come upon hard times. They know that this really is a big deal. We met widows who know full well that the “little bit” being touted means something they won’t be able to afford if the merger is approved. We met laborers who work for minimum wage, folks who work a hard forty hours a week. They understand that one person’s “no big deal” is very big indeed to them. We met men and women on the brink of insolvency.  Here are some of the things we heard from them. “The last thing we need is more taxes.” “If they keep this up I’m gonna’ go under.” We heard the questions. “What was wrong with things as they were?”  “How can they be so out of touch with me?”
Chris Walker framed the big picture in this debate in January. It was beautifully stated. He noted that there are 52 different taxing entities Lyon Countians have to cope with. This is how he put it: “While many entities that receive tax money work on the premise of lobbying for little increases, it is the taxpayer who gets hit with the big increase in the end when all the little increases are added up.” He cited some of the organizations and departments dependent on taxpayers for support, including Newman Regional Health, USD 253, Emporia State University, the County fairgrounds, and others.
Chris also said: “At what point does our community ask elected officials to have vision with regards to our taxes?” “Our world and community have changed dramatically since Emporia’s boom years. In the internet age we have lost business and population and need to be careful of how we spend our money.”
Amen, Chris. Amen!
Things were difficult here in January. It’s now spring and things haven’t gotten a lot better. Dolly Madison just published a WARN notice to employees. Management and labor intentions may be good, but they’re navigating their way through stormy seas, with hundreds of jobs on the line. While we hope for the best, the truth is that the future is very uncertain. Fanestil is still in the appeal process, with another fifty or so jobs at risk. Home foreclosures are at high levels. The unemployment picture is murky, at best. Our poverty rates are going up, not down. Household incomes are low, and stagnant.
I think it’s reasonable to ask, given our situation, why we need another taxing entity, and an independent one at that. What was wrong with things as they have been? The answer? Absolutely nothing!
As things stand now, Extension represents one line item on the Lyon County budget. Each year county departments submit budgets. The Commissioners review each one, then review the county’s financial condition and make adjustments where necessary. It’s not a fun process. There’s a lot of bloodletting. I know. I did annual budgeting for FedEx operating units.
Extension has to get in a prioritized line with a lot of worthy players. They have to compete with the hospital, the Sherriff, etc. They know we really need the hospital, the Sheriff, and that they just might be further down the priority list.
Yet, in spite of the difficulty, Lyon County has been very generous, maybe even generous to a fault, with Extension. You’d think a bit of gratitude would be in order. Instead, Extension wants more than our generosity. They want more of our money. Something is very wrong with that picture.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


On May 3rd the Gazette reported that the Lyon County Extension has been discussing the possibility of imposing mill levy limits on their taxing authority if Lyon County voters approve Resolution 1-12. Extension’s Brian Rees said, “We’ve talked about it briefly. We haven’t talked about a number.” Rees further said he’d be “tickled pink to have a 2.5 mill cap at this time.”
It was a classic example of a political trial balloon, one of those meaningless gestures or suggestions meant to sway voters. Politicians or those who stand to gain from political decisions often do this sort of thing. Many of us were around in 1988 when George H.W. Bush uttered the now infamous words, “Read my lips…No new taxes!” It got him elected. But, in 1990, with deficits increasing, he agreed to a budget deal that included tax increases to solve the problem. He didn’t get a second term. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war. Herbert Hoover promised to end poverty.
It’s one thing to make promises; it’s another to keep them. When County Attorney Marc Goodman was asked by KVOE about the legality of what Extension was “considering” he said, “The situation warrants further study, but an initial look indicates the district could legally set a mill levy limit by way of a majority vote by the district board. The board could also vote later to adjust the limit or remove it entirely.”
In other words, any promise Extension might write in to cap mill levies wouldn’t be worth a dime. Things can change. They always do.
In 2011 decreasing revenues had put Wyandotte County in a bind. Desperate, the Unified Government approved an 8.9% increase in property taxes contrary to promises they’d previously made. The vote was 6 to 4; about the same narrow scale of vote by which our commissioners approved the Extension merger. The people of Wyandotte County howled in protest, which was about all they could legally do. Did Wyandotte County residents get what they wanted? No, but they did get an approval from the Unified government for “an efficiency and effectiveness study of all departments.”
Here’s a hypothetical situation to consider. The Extension merger is approved. They set a 2.5 mill levy and promise to cap it. All seems well until county valuations decrease. Revenues shrink and businesses buckle under the weight of economic difficulty. Extension suddenly realizes that 2.5 mills leaves them far short of what they “need.” They can tell me till all the cows come home they won’t violate their “promise,” but I know better. When reality bumps into an empty promise, I can assure you that reality will win. Maybe 3 mills will do the trick, or 4, or maybe even 5. They will get what they “need.”  We can howl in protest all we want, but it will only leave us frustrated.
What do you suppose might happen when, a year or two later, the increase to 5 mills gets Extension far more revenue than they need? Do you think they’ll give the money back to us? I know enough about organizational behavior to realize they’ll find something to spend the money on. There’ll be “needs” for new I-Pads, efficiency studies, updated digs, naugahyde chairs, “energy-efficient” vehicles, new credenzas, or training junkets.
A few years back Dale Fjell was asked what Extension was trying to accomplish by consolidating. He talked about efficiency and economies of scale. He talked about service. But he really tipped his hand when he said, Here is an opportunity to be able to do that with another way to generate income. That is why we are trying to do that.” Brian Kreger put it even more succinctly – “We get to set OUR mill levy.”
There’s something Extension wants more than taxing authority. They want INDEPENDENT taxing authority. If they get it they won’t have to concern themselves with the needs of the Sherriff’s department, the library, Newman Regional Health, Road and Bridge, or other county departments. They’ll be as free as birds to do what they want.
There’s so much more to say. It will take subsequent essays to cover it all. I’ll close with this. Lyon County has been exceedingly generous with Extension. Since 2007 we have provided 67% of their funding. We’ve enabled them to increase salaries by close to 15% over that time, while county employees were getting no pay increases. In the early discussions about this merger, Extension has hinted that their future is uncertain. What are they saying? Haven’t we been generous enough? Has anyone against the merger said we were against funding Extension? Here is all we’re saying. We’re all for generosity. We’ve proven that. We simply don’t believe that his merger is a dog that can hunt. It needs to be left on the porch where it belongs.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


With Mother’s Day a few days off, I spent a good part of this early morning giving thought to my mother and her influence on my life. Over the years I’ve come to see that she did a really good job with the hand she’d been dealt.

Susie Park was born in McIvers, a small fishing village nestled in a cove about forty miles north of Corner Brook, Newfoundland. She was the youngest of Reuben and Fanny Park’s ten children. Her mother was a gentle soul. Her father was a stern man. I’ve seen a picture of him. To this day, when I think about that picture, I project a mental image to myself of what Ahab must have looked like chasing that white whale.

Everyone in McIvers loved my mother. They called her the “Flower of McIvers.” Her older brothers sometimes referred to her as “our little Susie.” I met them when I was stationed in Newfoundland from 1963 to 1965. They would recount stories of my mother and grandmother’s gentleness juxtaposed against Reuben’s stern ways. The most vivid of those tales was about a time when Susie was about fourteen. There was going to be a big dance in McIvers. She wanted to go. Her mother thought it was alright, but Reuben didn’t. She pleaded with him several times – “Please let me go.” He became enraged and beat her. She crawled up behind the wood stove and laid there all night, sobbing uncontrollably. My uncle Fye would shake his head every time he told the story. He’d sigh and whisper, “That Reuben Park were a mean, mean man”

She made her escape from Reuben in the early thirties by following her sisters, Annie and Frances, to America. She had no money and little in the way of education. She could barely read or write. Calculating the sum of six plus five was an enormous undertaking for her. But she was determined to make her way in life.

She met my father a few years after she arrived in Boston. He was the epitome of the dashing Irishman. He was strong, handsome, and had a full head of curly hair. Little did she know that he had the Irish proclivity for drink that was to be their undoing.

By 1942, passion had given way to constant conflict. The relationship ended in 1948 when my father died. By that time Susie was a bundle of raw nerves. She had a complete nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. My brother, sister, and I became wards of the state. Over the next few years the Reuben Parks of the medical community inflicted as much cruel and unusual punishment on her as they could, including shock treatments. By the time she was released from the hospital she weighed about 80 pounds. She looked like death warmed over.

I don’t know how she did it, but she survived it all. She fought with everything that was in her to gather her family back together. She always stayed one step ahead of welfare and immigration officials (she never became a U.S. citizen), somehow sensing when they were hot on her trail. She connived with politicians to get the crumbs that would keep us afloat for another month or so. She never did get an education or have material resources, but she kept clawing and scratching her way toward the light. She refused to give up.

I remember the last time I saw my mother alive. She was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. As she had ever since she’d been in the nursing home, she just sat and smiled a half smile. The nursing staff loved her for her gentle manner. My wife, Nancy, asked me to say something to her. “God, Coach,” I said. “There’s no one there. What am I going to say?” Nancy went over to her and whispered in her ear. “You’re upset with him, Susie, aren’t you? He didn’t come to visit you last week.” Medical professionals would tell me it was my imagination, but I know better. Her eyes flashed. She was still there, fighting her way through the shadows.

At her funeral I was able to muster a few words of thanks – “You done good, Ma. You done good.”

If you’re thinking this piece was meant to evoke sympathy, you’d be dead wrong.  My mother taught us to fight life’s headwinds and never give up. She parlayed brokenness into a family that includes children who are college graduates and successful professionals, a grandson who graduated from Harvard, and a granddaughter who is an author commanding huge literary advances.

Susie Park was indeed the gentle flower who never broke. She was, as poet Janet Brennan observed, a “flower held sturdy by its rust.”  A man can’t get a better lesson in life than that.