May 28, 2024

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Former Manhattan mayor defends city’s taxes, salary increases

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Manhattan city taxpayers have seen their property taxes increase by 25% since 2019.  Since 1997, taxes increased by 351%; that is and over 3.3 times the rate of inflation and population growth.   Large property tax increases helped fund large pay increases for many city employees, with 43 staff members paid more than $100,000 in 2023.

But former Mayor Wynn Butler maintains “I believe in lean management” and “The city needs to only collect sufficient revenue to provide adequate services” in an interview with The Sentinel.  The interview was conducted shortly before Butler resigned after being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.

On property taxes, the mayor, on the city commission since 2011, says many city properties are beyond the reach of tax collectors:

Photo of Mayor Wynn Butler courtesy of City of Manhattan

“Manhattan has a high number of tax-exempt properties – KSU and government buildings.  That means that a large share of city revenues is not property tax-generated but sales tax-generated.  I do not want to see our sales tax exceed 10%.

“I also strive to achieve a flat or reduced mill levy.  I have never voted to increase the mill levy.  I voted “no” on the majority of our budgets since 2011 while  voting “yes” twice for mill levy roll backs – most recently last year, and once for a flat mill during COVID.”

However, tax-exempt properties are not an excuse to raise property taxes; city spending is what determines the degree to which it taxes.  The mill levy explanation is also a deception.  People pay their taxes with dollars, not mill levies, and they have been forced to write larger checks each year.  City officials across Kansas like to claim they are ‘holding the line’ on property taxes while taking advantage of large valuation hikes to take in more revenue.

Large pay increases for some Manhattan employees

On the issue of employee compensation, the mayor describes the increases as public safety and retention issues:

“As for salaries, we need to adequately pay the city workers. I like to target pay raises to the lower end, the folks out doing the visible work – road repairs, etc. The priority for salaries must be Fire and Police first as they are essential for public safety.  We have a consolidated Police Department in the County. The city does not have a police department.  Manhattan property tax pays 80% of the Riley County Police Department Budget.  That budget line item is determined by the seven member Riley County Law Board and is not under the control of the city.

Manhattan pay increases

Pay listings for Manhattan employees available on KansasOpenGov.org show many of the highest-paid employees received very large increases in 2023, including City Attorney Katharine Jackson (22%), City Manager Ron Fehr (12%), Deputy City Manager Jason Hilgers (21%), and Fire Chief Scott French (26%).

Butler also says, “The pay study “total rewards study” does a good job of documenting the discrepancies and differences the City of Manhattan staff were earning compared to similar sized cities in Kansas and the region.   I would encourage you to read the first dozen pages of the pay study.  It does a good job explaining the methodology and the comparisons used to adjust the positions within the organization and put the City in a position to recruit and retain talent.  Some of you may recall there was a real struggle in 2021 and 2022 to recruit or retain in both the public and private sector.”

We did implement the pay study for Katie, Scott and Jason (Attorney, Fire Chief, Assistant City Manager) over an 18 month period.  These were not all at once in June of 2022.  They were split into multiple adjustments with the last adjustment on 12/31/2023.

“City salaries need to be competitive to retain employees.  We had a retention problem and needed to make some salary adjustments.  We conducted a pay study and the results were implemented over a three year period. The large raises for the top folks in the organization were spread over three years. The raises for the folks out doing the visible work were put in place the first year.  The pay raises have fixed the retention issue.”

Many cities hire consultants to justify pay increases for employees, citing retention and competitive issues, but the Sentinel is unaware of any cities conducting studies that examine taxpayers’ ability to pay higher taxes and the detrimental economic effects of tax hikes.

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