Thanks to an effort organized by civic groups, Reno County residents could weigh in about community priorities for spending about $18 million in federal pandemic relief funds. Improving the affordability and accessibility of child care overwhelmingly ranked as the highest priority. What happens next lies in the hands of elected officials, who have the last word.
The people came together by twos and threes, unsure what to expect as they chatted with their neighbors and re-lived two long years of experiences battling COVID-19.
In 90-minute facilitated discussions from August through October of last year, residents shared their thoughts on an important decision: how to spend $18 million from the American Rescue Plan Act coming to Reno County and the city of Hutchinson.
“There was no doubt in my mind that we needed to ask the people, to have a sense of the priorities of our communities,” says Jackson Swearer with StartUp Hutch, one of eight civic groups that formed a task force to get a clear picture of what residents considered their top priorities.
In doing so, they made an unusual request of their local officials, including three county commissioners and five City Council members who bear much of the responsibility for making the decisions on how that $18 million gets spent.
The ask? Don’t spend that windfall until the community weighs in.
“This additional money is almost a third of the annual budget,” Swearer says. “It’s a maybe once-in-a-lifetime windfall, and we should be sure we are spending it on the most important priorities. We want to look back in 25 years and be able to say we did the right thing for our community with this money. We asked the county and city leaders to wait on making spending decisions until the people had spoken, and they agreed.”
Over the course of 45 listening sessions, a diverse group of 553 residents, who essentially mirrored the demographic profiles of Hutchinson and Reno County, wrestled with the question and came up with a pretty definitive answer. Improving the affordability, accessibility and quality of child care ranked as the most important priority, by a wide margin.
“It was interesting in meeting after meeting to listen to people discuss what they had learned during the pandemic and, in every discussion, the issue of child care came up again and again. As the discussions progressed, people talked about the challenge of child care and the impact it has on virtually everything else,” says Sean Eddington of Kansas State University’s leadership communications doctoral program, which helped facilitate the discussions and prepared a report on the results.
An unusual effort
Six other priorities emerged too. Workforce development came in second, developing more affordable housing was third and expanding mental health resources fourth. Rounding out the top seven were support for local businesses, especially those connected to travel and tourism; expanding access to health care; and developing recreational activities.
Darrell Pope with the Reno County NAACP says that being included in the process was a welcome change from how spending decisions are routinely made.
“Usually, there’s just one or two meetings and not everybody gets heard,” he says. “This process allowed for representatives from all demographics to be heard. We sponsored one session here at the NAACP, and there was a meeting at the Anchor that a lot of our Mexican American community attended.”
He says it was rewarding to eventually find all segments of the community in agreement with the top priorities.
“I feel hopeful that our elected officials are listening,” he says.
What happens next is where things could get interesting. The recommendations are just that. Local officials will determine how to translate the will of the community into policies and expenditures and determine whether to make judgments of their own on what the priorities can and should be.
But the unusual effort – public input into spending decisions is often limited to perfunctory public hearings that tend to draw only the heavily opinionated and special interests – raises deeper questions. What role should public input play in shaping crucial decisions of officials in a representative democracy? And how much input is enough?
The 553 people who participated in Reno County’s listening process, after all, significantly outnumber the eight elected officials who are tasked with decision making. But the organizers’ goal of reaching 1% of the population is a far cry from involving all 62,000 people who live there. How much representation is needed to make decisions representative?
For those who helped pull off the Reno County effort, the outcome is less about numbers than it is about having a process that successfully brought fresh voices into the conversation and gave decision-makers the chance to better understand the needs of their community.
“This was a truly great project,” Eddington says. “I think it was so successful because the task force took so much care to make sure that the participants were reflective of the demographic of the population. When we were about two or three weeks away from wrapping up, we had a session looking at the demographic representation we had seen so far and taking care to make sure invitations went out to anyone we hadn’t heard from.”
He describes the task force as “very respectful of opinions” and says the meetings were well-organized and collegial. And he thinks residents were very appreciative of being heard.
The Hutchinson Community Foundation supplied the funding that allowed the task force to contract with K-State.
The team, led by Eddington, included doctoral students Sakshi Bhati, Jeff Johansen, Jessica Kerr and Monica MacFarlane as well as 2021 program graduate Susan Metzger. The team developed a plan for the engagement process and trained facilitators to run the public input meetings.
K-State’s team also gathered data from each meeting and compiled the results into a report, which they presented to the task force and elected officials. The data from the plan is available to the public, along with a video, at rallyreno.org.
“Ultimately, our goal for this project was to foster productive conversations between community leaders and residents,” Eddington stated in a website posting. “By creating an inclusive and creative process, we helped the community identify key priorities that were surfaced by the ongoing pandemic. Moreover, the process was positively received by the residents and showcases the importance of advancing communication to engage wicked problems facing our communities.”
The council has agreed on a framework for dispersing the money, but it will still be awhile before participants – and everyone else who will be affected – learn just how persuasive large-scale community engagement can be. Hutchinson City Manager Jeff Cantrell said this past spring no decisions had been made about spending the $6.1 million coming to the city and adds there is no rush.
“We have until the end of 2024 to obligate those funds and until 2026 to actually spend the money,” he said. “That gives us time to consider all viewpoints.”
But what happens when a local government considers a lot of viewpoints and then goes a different direction?
In Sedgwick County, county officials launched an extensive community needs assessment to determine how to spend its pandemic aid, Celia Hack of The Wichita Beacon reported in April. The county conducted focus groups with organizations throughout the county and surveyed nearly 1,500 people. The need to help small businesses and nonprofits stay open emerged as one of the top community needs.
The county went as far as requesting letters of interest from community organizations for pandemic relief funds. Although these letters weren’t applications or funding guarantees, the county received 233 letters of interest with requests totaling nearly $107 million. Hack reported that the most interest came from organizations working in child care followed by businesses and nonprofits.
But with 152 requests totaling $215.4 million coming from Sedgwick County departments, the county commission voted unanimously to allocate all of its $100.2 million for county measures like public health measures, a court backlog and employee premium pay.
“I almost feel like we need to apologize,” County Commissioner Jim Howell said at the March 23 commission meeting, according to Hack. “We’ve almost created an expectation – there’s money to be doled out, so to speak, to organizations in the community that have these great needs. But there is no money left.”
Impressed but wary
Cantrell, whose tenure as Hutchinson city manager ended in May after his contract was not renewed, said the public hearing process in Reno County went better than he initially expected.
“It was a good conversation with people respecting each other. I think in part that is because the civic groups all know each other and have worked together in the past. There was a level of trust already there, especially with the Hutchinson Community Foundation, which has been issuing grants for years. Our civic organizations moved very quickly to get meetings going.”
Agencies initially involved were the Hutchinson Recreation Commission, the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce, the community foundation and StartUp Hutch. They were soon joined by the Young Professionals of Reno County, Leadership Reno County, NAACP Hutchinson and the Reno County United Way.
Swearer says quickly involving the public was important.
“We felt it was important to slow down the obligation of the funds. These are very important decisions, and there’s plenty of time to make sure that voices are heard.”
Cantrell said that early in the process he worried that there would be interests left out.
“I saw all these civic organizations jockeying to gain support for their individual perspectives, and I thought, ‘Who’s going to show up on the podium at decision time and complain that they never had a chance to be heard?’ But I feel more confident that a strong effort was made to be sure that everyone knew about the meetings and had a chance to attend,” he said. “We did hear from a wide cross-section.”
The dialogue is continuing at both the city and county levels, and Cantrell said it will be important to make sure that any projects that are funded meet the legal obligations set forth in the federal legislation.
He said the presentations did not change his initial opinion that half of the money should go to the community priorities and half to infrastructure projects, particularly replacing water lines in older, low- to middle-income neighborhoods.
The framework the council adopted would maintain that half-and-half distribution, although the council agreed to allocate 10% of the infrastructure funds, about $300,000, to the Hutchinson Housing Commission, which in turn will decide on projects that will develop affordable housing.
“Water line replacement was a project that was specifically mentioned in the guidelines,” he said. “I agree that child care is an important issue and should get a share of the money. But I don’t think it should get the lion’s share just because that’s what the public hearings identified.”
It’s not yet clear what, if anything, might change with a new city manager coming on board. By law, the money must be spent to mitigate problems that were either created or made visible by the COVID-19 pandemic. The council followed the task force recommendations for the priorities for the community-designated funds, suggesting 30%, about $1.83 million, go to solving child care issues and 10% to housing and economic development initiatives. The council plans to start accepting applications for grants in September.
Swearer says he is pleased that the council seems to be giving weight to the recommendations of the task force. “It seems clear from the decisions they are making that they are listening,” he says. “I’m proud of the work we did.”
New spotlight on an old problem
Just because money is available to spend on a problem that has been made more pressing by the pandemic doesn’t make it easier for local governments to address, even if the technical work of allocating funding takes place on a more deliberate timeline than is typical. The child care issue, in particular, represents a deeply complex adaptive challenge that local representatives are working to better understand even as they attempt to push for workable solutions.
Child care challenges have been present for years, but the pandemic put a spotlight on old difficulties and created some new ones. As schools closed, more parents, especially those in essential jobs who could not work from home, found that child care, even when available – a rarity – was unaffordable.
Slots in day care centers have to be kept full in order for providers to make a living, and state regulations limit the number of children that can be in each classroom or home on a given day.
Participants in the public meetings focused on providing incentives to establish more child care facilities through local businesses, private centers or community-based centers; supplementing salaries to attract workers to handle the gap in demand; and providing financial incentives to businesses or individual residents to cover the expenses of the programs.
Those closest to the child care issue say ensuring that any money spent offers a long-term solution is more important than getting money immediately and they caution that some “fixes” might make the systemic problems even worse.
Heather Faulkner, director of the Abundant Life Childcare Center at The Father’s House, a community church in Hutchinson, hopes officials will take their time and get it right when it comes to funding allocations.
She says providers have asked for a delay in allocating funds until they can complete a study specific to child care. Child care initiative leaders estimate they will need $9.8 million but a detailed study will take another three to six months to complete.
Abundant Life has hired Bradford Wiles, a K-State early childhood education specialist, to help it determine the true cost of child care and how it can be resourced. Equally important, she says, is determining the true cost of not investing in child care.
Faulkner has 22 years of experience in directing a school-style center, but she is just learning about the issues that home-based centers face. And it’s home-based centers that provide the bulk of care, especially in rural areas.
At the heart of the day care crisis in Reno County, all of Kansas and all of America, she says, is a disconnect between what it costs to offer quality child care and what families can afford.
More expensive than college
Even with the resources provided by pandemic relief aid, addressing the child care shortage is a tall order to tackle at the local level. Wiles’ published studies have pointed out that it is more expensive for a parent to have a child in day care from birth to age 5 than it is to pay tuition for four years of college.
“Parents are doing family planning around finding child care and choosing where to work and live based on where there are subsidized options and where quality, affordable, accessible care is available. A number of families have one parent, usually the mother, out of the workforce because it’s the only affordable option,” Faulkner says. “If you are the parent investing a four-year college tuition into child care, your expectations are high for quality care.
“In reality, because of the operational cost of day care and the expense of meeting all the regulatory red tape, the salaries that day care operators can provide are abysmal and there are no benefits. My starting pay for teachers is $7.25 an hour and I have 20-year veterans making $9.25. They are here because they love the children and are devoted to them.”
Federal pandemic relief funding did provide sustainability grants to help child care centers make it through the pandemic. Faulkner says she applied for the first round of funding and found the process to be easy and streamlined. She got a $60,000 grant that helped immensely. She applied for a second round with equal ease only to have her application rejected, saying it had been red-flagged by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for what she saw as a “minor issue.”
Faulkner’s counterpart at Hadley Day Care Center, Heather Nelson, says she was not involved in the community meetings because running a child care center in a pandemic left her short of time. But she did follow the outcome.
“It’s good to know that maybe something will change to address the constant struggle to just stay afloat,” Nelson says. Hadley “has been here for 50 years. Over the last five to 10 years, I can’t find people to come and work for the wages that I can afford to pay. There are people who want to be here and recognize that this job is important to the next generation, but they have to make more money to survive. Parents struggle to pay $100 a week for care. It’s a lot of money to them, but it doesn’t keep my business afloat.”
Nelson says she has women who fill her classrooms with love and laughter but are barely surviving. “I have one wonderful staff member who has been here 40 years and is beloved by children and parents alike. I can’t even pay her $10 an hour,” she says.
Hadley Day Care Center is licensed for 121 children but enrollment is down to 85 because she doesn’t have enough staff to operate at capacity.
While she struggles to find employees, there’s a yearlong waiting list for the infant and toddler rooms. “I have families calling to get on the waiting list as soon as
they learn they are pregnant,” she says.
Faulkner says that having businesses subsidize care centers for their workers can have unintended consequences for workers whose employers don’t – or can’t – match those subsidies. It also creates a worse staffing problem if salaries are significantly higher at some centers than at others.
“My staff would be out the door, and I can’t blame them,” she says. “We need a solution that helps everybody and assures that all children get access to high-quality care.”
And some solutions being discussed, such as universal pre-K, might end up hurting providers even as they offer a lifeline to struggling parents.
“It’s far more expensive to care for infants and toddlers than preschoolers,” Nelson explains. “I have to hire one staffer for every three infants. That ratio is 1-to-12 for 4-year-olds. We lose money on the infant and toddler rooms, and balance the budget on the older kids. If we have only the infants and toddlers, we have to charge even more to break even.”
County appreciates effort, is open to some delay
Some elected officials say they are committed to taking the community’s feedback seriously, even as they wrestle with other areas that might be amenable to quicker action. Commission Chairman Daniel Friesen says he is very appreciative of the nonprofit sector for taking a leadership role in determining community priorities.
“The meetings they held and the report compiled by K-State provided us with a detailed look at the priorities and they did an outstanding job of giving us the input we need to make decisions,” he says. “I don’t know if we will follow every recommendation or even if we can, but it certainly does help.”
He says he was glad to see that community priorities largely matched the top four priorities that the commission had already identified.
“The need to address child care has been on our radar for a while now,” he says. “Commissioner (Ron) Hirst has been bringing it up regularly. I am also impressed that the task force is willing to see us spend a large chunk of the money on a single, important issue.
“I was glad to see them suggest that we identify how to get the best results and make sure we allocate enough to really make a difference. There’s always a risk that you will try to do too many things and wind up with nothing that gets enough funds to get big results.”
Friesen says the commission has only made one spending decision so far, and that was to set aside $1.2 million of its $12 million allocation to provide matching funds required for an economic development project that is seeking a grant to help construct an industrial park in the K-96 Corridor, a 200- to 300-acre site that would give the community a place to locate new businesses where they’d have quick access to both Wichita and Hutchinson.
“We felt it was a good idea to set that money aside to give us a better shot at getting the $8 million grant,” he says. “If we don’t win that grant, we can always pull that $1.2 million back and apply it elsewhere.”
After a brief discussion in a commission meeting at the end of March, the commissioners indicated they might be willing to devote $4.5 to $5 million to child care efforts, while providing about $4.5 million to housing proposals from Interfaith Housing Services and the South Center Kansas Economic Development District.
From economic and workforce development, to housing, child care and mental health, the priorities identified on the listening tour align quite well with the county’s longstanding priorities, Friesen says.
He says the county is willing to wait on final funding decisions until they feel like they have all the information they need to make decisions. But there are challenges that come with doing that.
“It’s hard to be patient when there are so many things that we need, and some of those priorities are more shovel-ready than the child care sector is.”
When elected officials do act, organizers plan to keep a watchful eye. The task force will monitor how the community suggestions are handled and call attention to the funding decisions.
Reno County civic groups hope the effort won’t help just their county but also provide a model for other counties and cities. Considering the amount of pandemic money that will be spent in the coming months and years, they believe their approach could pay dividends elsewhere.
“We love our model for this kind of listening and hope city and county elected officials will see this as important. I think when you ask people to share their concerns it is important to show them that they were heard,” says Lisa Gleason, who represented the United Way on the Task Force.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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