Last week, I spent time in a lot of places in Kansas. Emporia, Hutchinson. Wichita. Hays. Russell. Manhattan. Council Grove. Fort Riley. Junction City. The countryside in Ellis, Chase, Riley, Lyon, and so many other great counties in Kansas. On the journey between Hays and Russell, I noticed something: closed rest stops.
Leaving Russell, the sign came yet again:
No services ahead. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. KDOT, in an attempt to reduce their budget which has been cash strapped by the Brownback administration has closed off services from these rest areas, bulldozed bathrooms, removed drinking fountains. It's a small thing, for sure, but it represents what is happening to our state: No Services Ahead. It isn't just about a rest stop, it is about what is happening to once proud communities in Western Kansas.
When KDOT began discussing the closure of these stops last December, they asked for community feedback.
The costs to KDOT were relatively small.. around $9k a year, but it was enough that KDOT simply couldn't afford them any longer. These kind of changes take place everywhere as a common course in the growth and contraction of a county.
What is occurring in Western Kansas, though, can best be stated as a loss of community. These are once proud towns who have fallen on hard times, in no small part due to Brownback's lack of support and interest in keeping these communities going.
In a phone interview with Jack O'Leary, an attorney in Russell, I was informed that:
"The state cuts in county funding tighten our belt to the point we can't afford basic services. We have one local PBS station, who's funding has been repeatedly cut due to lack of interest. Getting outside investors to bet on our towns is difficult when the state doesn't show any interest."
The problem that Western Kansas has is significant.. potential growth industries with an ongoing divide by the state house on how to help them.
Dotting Russell and Ellis county stand majestic turbines - windmills which fill Russell and Ellis County. These wind powered facilities were seen as a way to continually grow the Kansas Economic power base.
Standing tall amongst the plain, these windmills supply power and the opportunity for ongoing jobs. A new found resource for the electrical grid - which at one point promised so much for these communities.
I was greeted with radio advertisements noting that their cost per KWH (Kilowatt Hour) in Western Kansas stayed at a nice 6 cents. I say nice because here in Kansas City, I pay up to 38 cents per KwH. But what helps keep this rate stable and steady going forward is the use of a diverse power grid.. which includes power sources like wind. (http://www.kcplsmartgrid.com/...)
At one point, even Republicans saw the goal of producing more jobs in the Wind industry - a way for Western Kansas to attract new jobs and to keep their youth.
Not true of all Kansans, of course, as Western Kansas representative to the US House (Tim Huelskamp) remained significantly opposed.
âI strongly support this extension of the production tax credit so we can continue to build wind energy and these jobs and the electricity associated with it,â Brownback said.
Brownback faces a divided Kansas congressional delegation.
Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita and Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, oppose extending the credits.
But that was two years ago, and now things are different.
Immediately after the vote, AFPâs Kansas director Jeff Glendening issued a statement, saying, âMandates like the RPS disable the competition that ultimately leads to lower costs.â
If approved by the House, the measure would go to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who is allied with legislative leaders and groups opposing the RPS. But in the past, Brownback has praised Kansas wind development.
Brownback now faces real pressure. Pressure from his largest backers.. A battle so severe that other Republicans have faced immediate opposition for refusing to oppose RPS.
According to Schwab's email, his troubles with the stateâs âRenewable Portfolio Standardsâ started last year when a Koch Industries lobbyist approached him after a hearing on repealing the standards. During the hearing, Schwab had commented on the fact that only think tanks and no Kansas businesses testified in favor of repeal.
âAfter the meeting, Jonathan Small asked if I was supportive of the bill,â Schwab wrote. âI responded by asking who was pushing it, and he admitted it was Koch Industries. I told him if he wanted me to vote for the bill, then we needed some Kansas businesses to advocate it, because right now it looked as an anti-business vote. He told me at the time only Koch wanted the measure. I recommended that Koch testify then. Jon said if they did that, people would not like them. My response was that people don't like them anyway, so just be honest.â
With all the debate about energy, though, we have to get back to Western Kansas. And what they face is more damaging then a political showdown. What ails communities like Russell, Hays, Colby and others is that they have no assurances of what will happen - and they have little to no funding support from the state to help their communities survive.
Many residents find themselves running into this:
Once proud county roads, asphalt at one point in Ellis county that have been converted to a mix of loose gravel to save money.
Or, in Russell county, county roads that can't support maintaining asphalt and have simply been allowed to fall apart.
Where warning signs tell potential visitors that the road may not be safe at normal speeds. Lose gravel and lack of maintenance lay ahead.
In some cases, like here in Ellis County, a road drifts between paved and dirt as the road has been allowed to fall apart.
It isn't the dirt roads - which have always been a part of the lifestyle of Kansas. It isn't about small communities, the kind of places I grew up in. It is about the uncertainty. These communities face a list of real problems: The Lack of Water. The lack of state support. A decreasing population base. A reduction of young people willing to stay. But the greatest problem is uncertainty.
"Oh no, I'm leaving as soon as I go to college. There isn't anything here."
Maybe she was just a car hop at a Sonic. Her words though strike to the heart of rural Kansas.. how do they retain a community they know and love with no assurances?
These are proud and beautiful communities. I enjoy the majesty of the plains every time I tour through Kansas.
They are also communities that are hurting. Kansas Budget Shortfall is a difficulty for many counties. For some counties, especially wealthier areas of the state, they will make it up through property tax increases and local municipality taxes. For smaller communities, the shortfall is more than an annoyance - it is the difference between being able to provide for their community or join so much of Kansas - the Kansas that is best defined as "NO SERVICES AHEAD".
A few plugs..
I would encourage all of you in Western Kansas to support Jim Sherow. Jim Sherow, a life long Kansan, US Military Retiree and an elected officer of the city of Manhattan understands the west not just because he's lived there, but as a Masters of History with his teaching focus on Kansas history he has walked the walk. I'm linking Jim's ActBlue below. Tim Huelskamp has done more harm to Kansas than I can easily put into a diary. Because of Tim, for the first time in my memory, Kansas doesn't have a representative on the Agriculture Committee in Congress. Tim's repeated opposition to Wind Power has been a direct attack on his own district. When you combine these with Tim's failure to address water rights issues, real job creation or support for help for these areas you realize that if Western Kansas is to have hope, it will need a real advocate who understands their issues. If you've got $5 or $10 to spare, please go to Jim's ActBlue, listed here:
Yes, as you know, I'm running a mini-kickstarter. Don't worry, whether it funds or not, I'm still going through all of the counties in the state and I'm working to help provide a new way to look at Kansas. The pictures in this diary were taken with a DSLR, and interviews were all conducted in full Sony 4K HD. I'm cutting most of them together for a presentation in Kansas City for the film festival in August. If you'd like to support that, I'd welcome you to do so:
I believe there is a chance to change Kansas. All it takes is effort and time. The last photo I'm going to include comes from Council Grove, Kansas - where the Washunga parade happened this weekend. These photos represent the proud democrats in Western Kansas who walked the walk for their candidates Saturday.