New city administrator settling in, looking ahead
Chris Lowe hasn't been in Baldwin City for two months and he has been a busy man with goals for improving the town he calls home.
Baldwin City's new city administrator took over his post in early September. Since taking over for Jeff Dingman and interim city administrator Pam Irey, Lowe has remained busy. He's had numerous meetings with staff members and city council meetings, while trying to meet local residents as a member of the public.
“It's proved to be more challenging than I anticipated,” Lowe said. “I've always been an assistant before I came here, so it's easier from the cheap seats. When you're the head guy, you are the juggler and you have to keep all of those balls in the air. That's been an eye opener.”
Lowe was the assistant city administrator for Warrensburg, Mo., before taking a similar position in Pleasant Hill, Mo. In August, he was hired to come be the head city administrator in Baldwin City.
Adjusting to being the head administrator has been challenging at times for Lowe, who grew up north of Baldwin City in Pleasant Grove, but he's been thankful for the help around him.
“We have a very strong council and a very strong leader in the mayor that have made it easier to acclimate,” Lowe said. “The job that Pam did on an interim basis helped. Instead of walking in blind, she was able to give me some information and pass the baton on to me. She did a lot of work while she was here.”
He has support from Mayor Ken Wagner.
“I think he's a good fit for Baldwin City,” Wagner said. “I'm a little partial about it, because I was involved in the interview process. He's out in the community. Him and I went to three different restaurants in the community on Friday, so he's getting out and meeting people. Traditionally, we haven't done a lot of that in this community. The feedback I'm getting is very positive. They like his energy level. They think he represents Baldwin City very well.”
Since starting in September, Lowe has spent much of his time getting up to speed on how the city operates and who he works with. He's also worked diligently on understanding the Baldwin City utilities. However, his biggest challenge has been learning the differences between Kansas and Missouri laws.
“Kansas, from a budget standpoint, is a much more controlled environment,” Lowe said. “All of our budget line items are submitted to the state and we can't deviate from those unless you do a budget amendment. Then you have to update the state on that. In Missouri, that is pretty much left to local control. If you had a budget amendment, you took it to your council and that was it. It's been a challenge learning what I can or can't do in Kansas law.
“There are just a lot more differences in the law,” he said. “Even the method of taxation is entirely different, in terms of how you levy property taxes. It's much more complicated in Kansas than it is in Missouri. Those have been challenges and one thing I've had to learn. I didn't think there would be that many differences.”
Of course, Lowe has goals for himself and the city. While his time in Baldwin City hasn't been long, he is already aiming for bigger and better things in downtown and along U.S. Highway 56.
One of the goals that Lowe and the city council is working on is improving economic development along the highway. Another is to keep and attract businesses downtown.
“Personally, I feel like we need to do a good job with the downtown and the U.S. 56 Highway corridor,” Lowe said. “It's going to be important to attract businesses in both areas. We'd like to see more folks work here that live here, but to do that we're going to need different kinds of businesses. That could logically happen on the 56 corridor. To me, one of the most exciting things is to develop this downtown. We've got to get those store fronts full and preserve this historic downtown.”
His other priority is better understanding the utilities, especially the electrical and water utilities. He has talked to many residents about the issue and it's a goal of his to find out if Baldwin City is expensive and how it compares to surrounding areas in price and service.
“I think one thing that contributes to that perception is very few cities have all of the bill together,” Lowe said. “Other than gas, you get one bill from us and it's everything. I think there is a perception that because it's all together it feels like they are paying more than they would in other cities. I haven't studied the rate structure, but I do want to look at it and we charge people what's fair. I always say they are our neighbors before they are our customers and I don't want to be overcharging anyone. We are trying to address the issue. We don't want people to feel like it's too expensive to live here.”
Although it's been less than two months, people working with Lowe believe he will do great things for Baldwin City.
“He's anxious to do more,” Wagner said. “He's a really, highly-motivated person, so I think he'll do very well.”