Client Interview: Merriam, KansasPosted on Wednesday, June 6th, 2018 by Kristen Leathers-Gratton
In Our Clients, tagged in Tags: client interview, merriam ks
We recently sat down with Chris Engel, the City Administrator of Merriam, Kansas, to discuss how his community is moving forward. In the interview below, you’ll find his insight on infrastructure maintenance, funding, and how the city expects to change over the next decade.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in regards to public works over the course of your career?
One of the most significant changes has been a decrease in federal and state funding for infrastructure, which has corresponded with a period of great need. Another difference has been a shortage of prospective employees. It’s becoming more difficult to recruit new talent.
How have priorities and needs shifted?
There is a desire to keep taxes low, which has created a budget crunch. In Kansas, the State is funding a variety of programs, like education, with KDOT funds, in the hopes that they can be deferred to a later time. Funding is going to services that are more popular with the public, despite the fact that infrastructure needs remain the same. It’s just easier to overlook infrastructure, because it degrades over time; closing a neighborhood pool or eliminating a social service has a much more immediate impact.
To offset this, there has been a shift towards implementing less expensive solutions. For example, some cities are lowering their pavement benchmarks. We’re seeing more chip seal in urban environments, which in the past was used mostly in rural areas.
All of these decisions are pushing repairs further down the road. The problem is that the more the road deteriorates the more it will cost to repair later. With most fixes, there is a sweet spot. It’s important to make the improvement before it degrades too fast.
We are lucky in Merriam. We don’t have a lot of these problems. City leadership is supportive and prioritizes infrastructure fixes. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for other municipalities.
What are some of the largest challenges Merriam faces as it grows?
We are constantly working to find a balance between funding maintenance and financing new infrastructure.
How do you think the city will change in the next five years?
We are expecting to see commercial infill increase in the next five years. Also, the Johnson County population is growing and so is Northeast Johnson County. This growth is resulting in more traffic, and because Merriam is home to two busy thoroughfares and functions as an important connection point, we know these factors will impact us. Shawnee Mission Parkway runs through our city, and it is one of the busiest east/west corridors in the metro. We also have a section of I-35 that has the highest car count totals in the state. We know that those numbers won’t decrease and are preparing for the impact of that, both on our infrastructure and to City departments, like emergency services and public works.
Also, as our assets age, we expect there will be a regular failure of infrastructure. In some established areas of Merriam, this may be caused by hidden infrastructure, like corrugated metal pipe that has rusted, old trees, and storm sewers. These are expenses we’re planning to incur in the years to come.
What might we see in a decade?
In the next 10 years, I think we will see more neighborhood infill. There will continue to be turnover, as those who have been there for 40 to 50 years move to new residences. We expect to see younger families with more modern tastes in homes, resulting in expansions, construction, and renovations.
Long-term residents often establish the values of a community that attract younger families. But, younger families often come with different wants, needs, and levels of disposable income. They are looking for sidewalks, bike lanes, wireless infrastructure, green initiatives, and parks. For a while, there will be competing demands between the two groups until we hit a tipping point where we have more younger families. In fact, we’ve been working for a few years on our parks and sidewalk infill program in anticipation of the change.
How is the city planning for those changes?
We are constantly balancing the community’s needs. We are small enough to be nimble and have taken outstanding care of our infrastructure. Merriam has a dedicated sales tax for infrastructure, which has allowed us to stay on top of maintaining it. We’ve also had great success leveraging grant funding.
Our elected officials value the investment in infrastructure, and it’s helped us make important changes to our community. All streets are being moved to a more modern profile with curb and gutter. We’re adding sidewalks in residential areas too. We’ve also continued to modernize building codes and are updating our comprehensive land use plan for the next 15 to 20 years.
In addition, as neighborhoods and socioeconomic trends happen, we try to remain receptive to that. For us, these improvements are a two-way conversation between the city and residents.