Archive for Monday, September 17, 2007

Flooded town determining its future

September 17, 2007

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— The outward evidence of a flood that tore through much of this southeast Kansas town in June is mostly gone, but the damage left behind may still engulf the town's future.

A vote Tuesday on a proposed $21.9 million school bond issue is painted by some city and school officials as the first real test of whether Erie's 1,200 residents are ready to put the flood behind them and pay to ensure the town's survival.

The bond would pay for a new high school, move the elementary school to the current high school, and improve an elementary school in nearby Galesburg.

At the same time, Erie leaders are planning an environmentally friendly housing development adjacent to the new high school. Although money from the bond would not be used for the development - and city officials say housing will be built regardless of the vote's outcome - supporters say the two projects are linked in their plans for the town's future.

"We jumped behind the bond issue because our school district is doing great things," Mayor Charlie McKinney said. "We want to start getting everything working together. But we aren't having the city subsidize the school, or vice versa."

'As green as possible'

The housing would fill a need that existed in Erie even before the June 30 flood made 130 properties - out of 650 metered properties in town - eligible for a federal buyout. Besides homes, it damaged or destroyed many businesses, including the town's only grocery store.

The planned housing development would incorporate some environmentally friendly components, said Allan Milbradt, an architect with educational design group of PBA Architects in Wichita. They include such possibilities as ponds used for irrigation, wind generators to provide some energy for the homes and the school, using energy efficient appliances and building materials, and perhaps even moving some existing homes into the area.

"We're going to try and do as many sustainable things as we can," Milbradt said. "We want to make it as green as possible."

The innovative housing and a new, safer, state-of-the-art high school would help keep residents who might otherwise leave and might attract new people, supporters say.

"People won't come to live in a town if you don't have a good school and houses for them to live in," said Mike Carson, superintendent of the school district. "You have to have the tools to compete. It all fits together."

Bond opposition

Nearly everyone agrees the town needs more houses, but some vehemently oppose the bond issue. They contend that too few people in the school district - in Neosho County and a small slice of Crawford County - would have taxes raised to pay for the bond.

"The (tax) burden is just getting too great," said Bud Breiner, 87. "The flood is going to take out more property, so that's less people paying taxes. The ones that's left will have to pick up the whole bill."

Carson and city officials said they were optimistic before the flood that the bond would pass. Now, they concede, people who may have supported it might be reluctant to take on higher taxes.

"The flood put in some doubt, and a little malaise," Carson said. "But we're starting to snap out of it. We're being very positive and a lot of people are working hard trying to make it happen."

One supporter is Gene Maher, 73, who said the new school is vital to the town's future.

"We need better facilities," Maher said. "We're going backward. If we don't get this, we're going to go down."

But Breiner contends the district, which has 600 students, including 225 in the high school, doesn't have enough students to support a new school. He blames that on a decision by the district's board in 2005 to close high schools in St. Paul and Thayer. Those towns responded by consolidating with other districts, costing Erie students and tax dollars.

Two other bond issues failed in 2004 and 2006 - the latter by about 100 votes. Maher said it's time to bite the bullet.

"I know some people are awfully scared," Maher said. "Money is tight and increasing taxes is tough. But everything's tough in a small town."

McKinney said the flood added new stress to operating the town, making the bond issue/housing development even more important.

"As far as dollars, the city doesn't have any. We're trying to do our best with what we have," McKinney said. "We want to at least maintain what we have. We're hopeful we're going to gain."

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