Wagner reflects on his term as mayor
Ken Wagner didn’t plan to give up the gavel Monday night when he decided four years ago to run for Baldwin City mayor.
At that time, Wagner thought he would seek another term and serve eight years as mayor. But, he said, situations change and he decided in January he needed to give more time to his growing Heritage Tractor business.
“Heritage Tractor now has 10 locations and more than 200 employees,” he said. “I really need to focus on the business side.
“That keeps me very busy. I thrive on that, but I also thought ‘I’m 55 years old now. Will I still have that same energy and drive when I’m 59?’ When I couldn’t answer that, I decided I shouldn’t run.”
While making that decision, he made a list of the city’s accomplishments during his term, Wagner said. The list and its 30 bullet points helped ease his mind.
“Had I done that list and there were only two or three things, I would have probably thought I hadn’t done enough,” he said. “I think we’ve accomplished a great deal during the past four years. “People tell me, ‘I bet you’re really glad it’s over.’ I’m really not. When you’re involved in government in a community this size, you can really make meaningful things happen.”
The two things that topped his list of accomplishments will benefit the community for generations, Wagner said. They are the 40-year extension of an agreement with the city of Lawrence for the purchase of wholesale water and the successful passage in 2009 of referendums allowing the city to add a quarter-cent quality-of-life sales tax and extend the half-cent infrastructure sales tax.
“For years to come, we will have the opportunity to build amenities in this community because of those sales taxes with revenue that takes advantage of tourism and from people visiting Baker University,” he said. “An example of that are the restrooms we’ve built in the parks.”
The water agreement, which immediately reduced the city’s price for wholesale water by 25 percent and tied any future rate increases to what Lawrence charges its domestic wholesale water customers, should end double-digit water-rate increases the city experienced in the past decade and was forced to pass on to its customers, Wagner said.
That agreement was part of a wider effort in the past four years to improve relationships with the city of Lawrence and Douglas County, Wagner said. That has paid off in the economic development arena with the city’s involvement in the E-Community economic development loan program and with the county sharing in street improvements.
Those street projects included last year’s North Sixth Street project, the ongoing improvement of the U.S. Highway 56/Lawrence Street intersection and next year’s upgrade of High Street/U.S. 56 intersection.
“I know there are some people upset with all the detours, but the 6-foot cut they are going to make in the hill is really going to improve the sight line at Lawrence Avenue and make it much safer for bus traffic at the elementary schools,” Wagner said of this year’s project. “It’s the same with next year on High Street. That is going to make that intersection much safer by cutting down the angle of the intersection.
“Both those projects came about because of our participation in KDOT’s Corridor Management Program and our partnership with Douglas County.”
The council was successful the last four years because it wasn’t afraid to do things differently, Wagner said.
“We’ve put money in the budget the last two years specifically for economic development,” he said. “We’ve never done that before.
“We formed what I think was the city’s first-ever benefit district for a sewer district last year. Could that process have gone smoother? Yes. But I think in the future we can take what we learned from that experience to make other needed improvements in the city.”
Another accomplishment the businessman in Wagner is proud of is a change in attitude at City Hall.
“We’ve revamped that whole staff at City Hall with the intent of people being more attentive to customer service,” he said. “I feel really good about the people and the attitude we have now in City Hall.”
There was one area of city staffing Wagner didn’t see completed and is encouraging mayor-elect Marilyn Pearse to pursue.
“I think we have a vulnerability with continuity,” he said. “We have a number of city employees with a great deal of knowledge and expertise. What happens if something happens to one of those employees or they decide to retire? What are we doing to assure staff is getting adequately trained to take over. I think that’s something we need to address.’
Wagner said he was very comfortable turning the city over to Pearse, with whom he served two years on the council. He has suggested to Pearse that she retain the retreats for new city councils, which he said helped the last two councils develop a shared vision of goals.
Wagner said he also had told Pearse she would find city government different than when she left in 2003.
“We’re sitting pretty good financially,” he said. “We do have money to do things in the city now where 10 to 12 years ago, it wasn’t quite that way.”
Wagner does regret leaving office without the chance to work with newly elected council members Christi Darnell and Kathy Gerstner.
“I think it will be a stronger council than the one we had,” he said. “I say that with no disrespect to those who served on the current council. Those two ladies are very intelligent and have a lot of energy and I think they’ll be very prepared.”
Although he is leaving office with Monday’s Baldwin City Council meeting, he would remain active in appropriate roles, Wagner said.
“Next Monday night when I leave, I’m not going to disappear,” he said. “I would be happy to work on special projects or on committees if asked. One thing I don’t want is to stay in a leadership-type position. I don’t want to be a behind-the-scenes advisor.”