To Be Transparent, Government Must Be Open
It doesn't get more open than the local government, the government closest to the people.
The fall and winter are stressful times for most folks, with school starting, extra-curricular activities, and the holidays compressed into a few short months. When the economy is in poor shape, it only exacerbates the issues. Whatever metric you choose to use to gauge the economy – GDP, the consumer price index, unemployment, or others – most folks would agree that the current economy is not good with an uncertain outlook.
The annual arrival of tax statements adds to an already stressful year. Yesterday, someone showed me a social media post from a gentleman who was upset with his tax bill and commented, "this town is pathetic." I don't disagree that property taxes are high; I pay them too. However, I encourage you to look at your tax statement and see what taxing entities on your bill levy a property tax and the amount of money each expects to collect. For folks who own property in the City of Russell, the taxing entities included on your tax statement include the State of Kansas, Russell County, USD 407, City of Russell, Russell Recreation, and Midwest Extension District #15. Each entity levies property tax, with a combined levy of 186.339 mills. So what do 186.339 mills mean? A valid question, as there is often a misunderstanding of mills, valuation, property class, taxes paid, and where they go.
The value of one mill differs for each taxing entity based on the total property valuation in that entity's jurisdiction. For example, the 2022 valuation for Russell County is $110,232,422, the total valuation for USD 407 is $80,554,401, and the City of Russell's valuation is $32,951,842. So, what does that mean? That means that one mill levied for Russell County brings them $110,232 in property tax revenue; one mill brings USD 407 $80,554 in revenue, and for the City of Russell, one mill brings $32,952 in property tax revenue. Comparing the number of mills levied by a taxing entity to another is like comparing apples and oranges. For example, for the City of Russell to receive $100,000 in property tax revenue requires 3.0347 mills or 1.24155 for USD 407 and 0.90718 mills for Russell County. It takes three mills for the City to raise the same property tax revenue as the county raises with one mill.
You may see a clearer picture with different valuations if you focus on the dollars each taxing entity levies. The Russell County Treasurer includes an insert with your tax statement that includes a graphic of where your tax dollars go. The same data is available on the Kansas Department of Revenue website under the Property Valuation Division's data by county page. I appreciate the County Treasurer making this information available to all taxpayers – it is informative and allows one to see the big picture. On the insert, "City" receives 12.17% of all property tax. USD 407 receives 25.59%, and Russell County receives 48.13%, based on the 2021 Real and Personal Property Value and Tax Summary from the Kansas Department of Revenue.
The 2023 adopted budgets for Russell County and taxing entities within the county are not yet available on the Kansas Department of Administration website. I did find the 2023 property tax revenue for Russell County, $8,362,387, on their website, and the City of Russell's adopted budget requests $1,916,595 in property tax revenue. I point out these numbers not to pit one entity against another. I do not know the reasons or plans behind other taxing entities' budgets; you'll have to ask the entity. I show this information to inform taxpayers, generate interest, seek questions, and invite involvement in your government – City, school, county, and state. Each one of these entities impacts your property taxes. If your property taxes are high, find out why. As author Adora Svitak said, "The first thing anyone can do about any issue is get informed."
So what does the City do with the $1,916,595 property tax revenue? Most of the revenue funds the police, fire, public transportation, 911 services, public works, street maintenance, building, planning, zoning, the municipal court, golf course, swimming pool, park, public library, municipal airport, and the Deines Cultural Center. Other entities that receive funds from the City are Russell County Economic Development, Russell Main Street, Russell Chamber of Commerce, Western Kansas Child Advocacy, and Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services.
Just listing the services provided through property tax doesn't show the entire operation of the City of Russell; it's in the numbers. The latest census puts Russell's population at around 4,400 people. To serve our community's public safety needs, we have eight police officers, one animal control officer, one full-time fire chief, fifteen volunteer firefighters, and nine 911 communication dispatchers. That's one police officer for every 550 residents, and dispatch serves all of Russell County for 911 services and dispatches for the city police, county sheriff, city fire, EMS, and ten rural fire departments. The parks department maintains 160 acres of parks, the city cemetery, the airport, public right-of-way, and city-owned properties with five employees. Two full-time employees maintain our beautiful 9-hole golf course. The street department has four street maintenance folks for 108 lane miles of the road while also helping the four employees working sanitation and recycling – truly a team effort. The Deines Cultural Center is staffed with two part-time employees, while the municipal court clerk is part-time and assists the police with records management. One full-time and one part-time employee drives the public transit bus, providing 14,000 rides annually. To round out the general fund, we have one certified building official who serves as the City's zoning administrator and supervises one code officer to address blight, weeds, and overgrowth, a public works mechanic, and a GIS technician who assists all departments. I would be remiss if I did not mention the seasonal employees, lifeguards at the Duke Johnson Municipal Swimming Pool, and summer help for parks and golf.
What about all the other city employees I see around? Those are likely from one of our utility departments. The City operates four utilities – electric, water, wastewater, and sanitation – which receive zero property tax revenue. Our electric distribution shop has four journeyman linemen and four apprentices who maintain an electric distribution system covering fifty square miles with 146 miles of 3-phase primary and 5,875 power poles. Electric production has eight employees who maintain and operate two power plants capable of generating 23 megawatts of energy. The water utility has seven certified operators and seven distribution maintenance personnel who convert an average of 1000 acre-feet raw water into more than 320 million gallons of finished water, serving 2,419 customers through 92 miles of water mains. To meet EPA standards, two certified wastewater operators treat over 300 million gallons of wastewater and infiltrate water yearly. The four sanitation employees I mentioned earlier serve 2,197 customers and haul away an average of 5,250,000 pounds of trash yearly. Additionally, the City collects an average of 24,000 pounds of plastic, 8,000 pounds of tin, 38,000 pounds of glass, 9,000 pounds of aluminum, and 368,000 pounds of cardboard, newspaper, and magazines annually. And I cannot forget the folks who support all these employees –human resource/payroll, utility billing clerk, cashier, the Assistant City Manager, City Clerk, Finance Director, City Attorney, City Prosecutor, Municipal Judge, and the GIS technician.
Operating a City, especially one that also provides utilities, is a unique operation. Imagine an entity that directly impacts the lives of every resident, business, or visitor twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Take a moment and find a day when the City's operation did not impact you. The community's reliance on the services provided magnifies even the slightest operational flaw. As a team, city employees work daily to improve services and the quality of life for our community.
Do we make mistakes or equipment fail? Yes, and we learn from them and get better each time. Our job is to serve the community. To do so, we need constructive and informed input. I invite you to attend city council meetings on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month beginning at 4:30 pm at the City Building. If you cannot attend in person, perhaps you can attend virtually. If not, you can sign up to receive text or email notifications when the city council agenda and packet are ready for download from the city website. When you download the agenda and packet, you have the same information provided to each city council member. If you see an item of interest or have a question, please stop in, call the city building, or come to a city council meeting. We would be happy to discuss each item on the agenda. If you have a general question, comment, concern, or suggestion, you are always welcome to call or stop in the city building and talk with city staff. If we can't answer your questions, we will find someone who can. However, if you post your question, comments, concern, or suggestions on social media, I won't be able to answer them. I don't have social media, and city staff does not regularly monitor the City's social media accounts. One uninformed post or misinformation can contribute to a contentious environment and divisiveness. Our community is better than "them or us"; we all belong to this community. What good does it do to disparage the community on social media or any place? Forming false beliefs requires exposure to false information. Those not from Russell who hear constant negativity are likely to get a negative perception of our community, whether that is one's intent or not. A negative perception harms the entire community – businesses, schools, and other residents. Take a moment and look around; there is no better place to call home than Russell.
I am not suggesting that all contrary opinions are incorrect; I only ask that you become informed on the topics. The best way to become informed with local government is to engage – attend city council, school board, and county commission meetings and ask questions, require answers, then make an informed decision. If you can't attend, reach out to those who can answer your questions or take your comments – a staff member or elected official. Your local government – City, school, and county – are the closest to the people. Where else do you have access to information and input on how your City, school, or county government provides public services, prioritizes infrastructure projects, or allocates budgets? You don't have the same access and input at the state and federal levels.
Always remember the words of so many of the founding fathers, eloquently stated by Daniel Webster in 1830, "It is, Sir, the people's Constitution, the people's Government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people."
On behalf of the City of Russell employees, we wish you a Happy New Year!