Hastings Mayor Corey Stutte, Councilman Paul Hamelink and other city officials in attendance at the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce's Coffee and Conversations Saturday morning spent much of the hour-long event dispelling rumors.
That includes the planned Hardee’s restaurant at 806 W. 16th St., which is a project of the Westar Group from Overland Park, Kansas.
Stutte said construction on Hardee’s is scheduled to begin in the next calendar year.
“They are working on several projects right now and that’s supposed to be started in 2019,” he said.
Hamelink said he heard a rumor the city is keeping Hardee’s out because the city wouldn’t let them put up a sign.
He cautioned the public not to believe “wild rumors.”
“I denied it on the golf course and said ‘I can’t believe that’s true’ and of course it wasn’t,” he said.
Other topics discussed with a crowd of about 30 people Saturday morning at Kitty’s Roadhouse included city debt, city reorganization, railroad quiet zones and the future of the Imperial Mall.
City reorganization and debt
Stutte pointed out that Ordinance 4473, which officially made Hastings Utilities a department within the city and established the advisory Hastings Utility Board in place of the operational Hastings Board of Public Works, went into effect just over a year ago.
Since that time, the city has combined human resources, finance and information technology departments. The city also has addressed other efficiencies such as hiring finance director Renae Jimenez to oversee all city departments and begin implementation of the Enterprise Resource Planning software.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to become the most efficient and effective city possible,” he said. “We’re real fortunate that staff has been working so hard.”
City officials also are working to bring together self-insured health plans for the city and utilities, which had been separate.
During the Hastings City Council primary election process, the city debt total became a topic of conversation with the amount $220 million mentioned by a candidate.
The city’s debt is around $2 million.
By the end of the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2017, the total HU bond debt was $25.47 million — $8.14 million in electric system revenue bonds and $17.33 million in combined system revenue bonds.
The total debt for Whelan Energy Center No. 2 went down from $637 million in September 2016 to $623 million in September 2017. Hastings Utilities’ share of that debt is 15.9 percent — $99 million, down from $101.3 million in 2016.
That debt amount is even less now.
“There is not as much as what was put out there,” Stutte said Saturday.
Another question he and Hamelink received Saturday that was based on claims made during the primary campaign process was that the city reorganization only happened as a “money grab” by city officials from Hastings Utilities.
“There’s not really any way for the city to go after utility funds,” Stutte said. “I think that was a little bit of a misdirection by one of those candidates. That money is the ratepayers’ money. We have a taxpayer budget. The utilities is a proprietary function. The city has its own fund, so that has to be kept separate.”
Hamelink, who supported Ordinance 4473, said the relationship between city and utility budgets was discussed at length during reorganization meetings.
“Was this a money grab? No,” he said. “That was never a part of my decision-making process. To my knowledge, discussing it with other council members, it was never a part of their decision-making process, but you’d have to ask all of them. If anything it was the opposite, we were wanting to make sure that proprietary funds were protected.”
Hastings Utilities doesn’t have a lot of money to grab, Hamelink said.
“They’re multimillions of dollars in debt,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad debt.”
City Administrator Joe Patterson, who was in the audience during Coffee and Conversations, addressed a couple of the topics that came up Saturday.
It is a trend in municipal government for operational utility boards like the Board of Public Works to either become extinct or have an advisory function.
“There were all kinds of people who were fundamentally opposed to change that were coming up with a lot of rationale on perhaps what the motivation of the city was to do this,” he said.
Establishing an advisory utility board was part of the Becker Report that looked at city organization — in 1977.
City officials have been working to combine city operations while providing the best of both city and utility benefits.
Utility funds are protected because the Hastings Utilities budget is proprietary in function and can’t be combined with the city’s general fund.
“I am as protective of the utility funds as I am the general funds of the city,” Patterson said. “They are separate. They should be separate.”
He’s concerned about cash on the utility side because of two major issues looming that won’t be cheap.
Hastings is a partner in the operation of the 220-megawatt WEC 2 coal-fired power plant that opened in 2011.
“You don’t see any new coal-fired power plants being built in the United States of America,” Patterson said. “It’s just not being done and we have a fairly new one.”
It’s a good thing the city has a minority stake in the ownership of the plant but still manages it.
“A lot of our expenses are able to be absorbed within that consortium,” he said. “That’s been a positive.”
Patterson said he also is concerned about potential costs associated with the city’s $46 million Aquifer Storage and Restoration Project, which is intended to mitigate rising nitrate and uranium levels.
“Make no mistake about it if that isn’t successful than other means will have to be made to make sure that our water is safe from nitrates and uranium,” he said.
Efficiencies will come from more cooperation as functions become more centralized, he said.
Railroad quiet zones
Hamelink is a council representative on the city’s Quiet Crossing Committee.
When it comes to the quiet zones, he said the most important word is “negotiation.”
Railroad quiet crossings are among items slated to be paid for by the continued half-cent sales tax Hastings voters approved last year.
City officials have been working with BNSF Railway officials about the future of crossings in Hastings.
“The city is going to have to work with them and guess what? They’re going to want something in return,” Hamelink said. ”I think they’d like us to close some crossings. I think there are other issues they’d like to have addressed and we’re going to have to work through those negotiations. That’s not going to be quick and it’s not going to necessarily be easy. There’s going to be a lot of negotiations there.”
The city wants a lot of community input on the future of the crossings. There are a lot of stake holders when it comes to the future of railroad crossings in Hastings, Hamelink said, including Hastings Public Schools because Alcott Elementary is so close to the BNSF Railway.
There may not be any crossings closed, he said, but everything has to be on the table.
“We’re going to work hard for it,” Hamelink said. “We are moving it forward. The project’s in place. The funding’s in place through taxes but it’s going to be a project that’s going to take significant negotiations and a lot of communications from everybody involved.”
Even once the quiet zones are in place, the train operator can blow horn anytime he feels it’s appropriate and he’s required to if there are pedestrians or other dangers on the track.
“Hopefully that will be rare,” Hamelink said.
He said Amtrak is required to sound the horn when it arrives and when it leaves.
“It should, however, be much, much quieter,” he said.
The question was asked Saturday whether the city has more liability should there be more an accident at one of the crossings once the quiet zones are in place
“I don’t think the liability changes much,” said City Attorney Dave Ptak, who was in attendance. “There’s liability wherever crossings are.”
Ptak is also on the Quiet Crossing Committee.
The railroad is required to check arms on a regular basis.
Ptak said the quiet zones may change the traffic flow around the crossings. That could be a task of the quiet crossing committee to minimize changes to driving but also enhance safety on the tracks.
“We certainly don’t want to see anybody hurt,” he said.
It also was asked whether maintenance at the crossings becomes more expensive once quiet zones are in place.
“If we eliminated a crossing, which would be one answer, maintenance would be significantly less than even the current crossings are,” Hamelink said.
Quiet crossing committee members will consider the city’s ongoing philosophy about the crossings and traffic flow.
Stutte said the city also needs updated cost estimates for quiet zones.
Patterson also wanted the public to know quiet crossings are not enacted one at a time. They don’t go into effect until they can all be protected at the same time.
Stutte said the K-Mart lease is more than $30,000 per month through the end of this year.
The price of the property likely won’t drop until the current owners, who live in New York, see a negative cash flow, he said.
He said he was told the price went down slightly after the announcement that Herberger’s would close.
“For developers to make this project go they’re going to need to get that property bought at a good price,” he said.
The Community Redevelopment Authority contracted with a consultant to look at the future of that area.
Stutte said he wants public discussion about future uses for that property.
“I want to be very upfront about this, it’s not going to be retail,” he said. “I just don’t see this being a good retail location at all. I think that’s going to be hard for some citizens to swallow but we need to be realistic about what that can be.”
He’s talked to several local developers who have expressed an interest in being involved with a project at the mall property.
“Whether they decide to keep parts of the building, all of the building or to take it to dirt that’s still yet to be determined,” Stutte said. “What we’d like to do is make sure we get it back under local ownership so we can control our own destiny on the property.”