COVID-19 exposes how city hall officials in Kansas get cold shoulder even in pandemic

League of Kansas Municipalities working on behalf of 600 cities

By: - January 25, 2021 8:45 am
Trey Cocking and Eric Sartorius of the League of Kansas Municipalities say legislative priorities of the state's 600 cities include COVID-19 regulation, property and sales tax reforms and Medicaid expansion. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Trey Cocking and Eric Sartorius, of the League of Kansas Municipalities, say legislative priorities of the state’s 600 cities include COVID-19 regulation, property and sales tax reforms and Medicaid expansion. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — League of Kansas Municipalities representatives Trey Cocking and Erik Sartorius have reserved seats to observe how more than 600 cities in the state interact with other levels of the government hierarchy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These city government advocates can point to exemplary collaborative efforts in which information about emergency equipment, coronavirus testing and distribution of vaccine was freely disseminated and decisions made for the good of all. On the other hand, they said, there are examples of harmful information bottlenecks cutting city officials out of the loop. There have been inconsistencies in how slices of $1 billion in federal CARES Act pandemic assistance was funneled from the state to counties and, at the end of the line, to cities.

“I’ve had cities that have needed to approach their counties for CARES Act funding that said, ‘I’m not going to get any traction and our city fears that it will be held against us if we if we … make a ruckus,'” Sartorius said. “One of the allowable uses of CARE’s money was to support the wages of municipal employees who had to quarantine or were COVID positive. And, in several instances, counties refused to release any of that money to cities at times when they had made such a commitment to the state and didn’t follow through on it.”

Sartorius and Cocking have a regular presence at the Capitol on behalf of the League of Kansas Municipalities, a nonpartisan organization created in 1910 to represent interests of city governments statewide.

A magic wand

For the Kansas Reflector podcast, both offered insight into how they might unilaterally work their magic on behalf of thousands of city officials scattered across the state.

Cocking, who served as city manager of Atchison and in Cherryvale before joining the League of Kansas Municipalities as deputy director in 2017, said the constitutional authority of people elected to city government positions wasn’t fully appreciated by some elected government officials.

“When I was a city administrator manager,” Cocking said, “I constantly ran into people in the grocery store who told me their opinion. I knew exactly what those folks wanted in their community. And, so did my commissioners and council members. Every year there is a bill trying to limit what cities can do in the state of Kansas. But they just got to put faith in their local elected folks.”

It was a sentiment shared by Sartorius, who was hired as executive director by League of Kansas Municipalities in 2014. He was at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and involved in Overland Park government for more than a decade.

He said he would welcome a more realistic appreciation of the financial challenges of operating a city. There is a misperception, he said, city councils ought to hold the line on expenditures despite rising costs of providing public services or the escalating price of consumer products.

“My television entertainment provider in the past two years has had 15% to 20% increases. My health care goes up 15% to 20% in many years,” Sartorius said. “But the Legislature doesn’t turn to that area and say, ‘Okay, that’s ridiculous. No more than an increase equal to the consumer price index.'”

He said the League of Kansas Municipalities continued to support a proposal to expand eligibility for Medicaid, despite opposition from Republican members of the House and Senate. The billions of dollars in additional federal funding of health care — the ACA covers 90% of the cost of expanding Medicaid — can provide overall benefits to cities in Kansas, he said.


Federal, state roles

The League of Kansas Municipalities supports enactment of federal legislation to assist cities with shrinkage in tax revenue due to disruption from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We still have cities that have been heavily hit with sales tax off 10% to 15%, which is still a good chunk of their operating budget,” Cocking said.

He also said there was anxiety about property tax collections. It’s possible demand for commercial space may fall by 10% to 20% from pre-coronavirus levels as more employees take advantage of opportunities to work from home, he said.

The League of Kansas Municipalities also has taken interest in a state bill designed to create more transparency about property tax increases by local government. Under the bill, Kansans would be notified of how much a city, county or other property taxing authority planned to raise tax rates.

In exchange, to the pleasure of the League of Kansas Municipalities, a state-mandated local property tax lid would be eliminated. Cocking said the lid was viewed as a failure because it tied the hands of local officials.

“I was a city manager for 11 years,” Cocking said. “Somebody would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Trey, property taxes are too high.’ And I said, ‘You know, it’s one of our long term goals that we’re trying to slowly bring down property taxes.’ And, then before I could even finish that sentence, the next thing out of their mouth would be, ‘Hey, I heard our cops were only making $15 an hour. And, hey, I know you guys have demolished some property. Have you looked at the property next to my mom’s house? And, have you driven down Main Street lately. There’s several potholes.'”

The League of Kansas Municipalities also endorsed an attempt by the Legislature to expand reach of the sales tax to cover online transactions. One objective is to close a loophole that compels consumers to pay sales tax on purchases directly from Amazon, but doesn’t effectively capture sales tax on purchases from a company without a physical presence in Kansas but relying on Amazon to facilitate transactions.

“Our concern is, as we look at all of these internet sales tax issues, our Main Street businesses have had been competing unfairly now for years,” Cocking said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.