The illusion of sustainability was the topic of conversation at city hall Tuesday evening, and it was a signal to the community that city growth in the future might look different than it has in the past.

At a joint meeting of the Hays City Commission and Hays Area Planning Commission, City Manager Toby Dougherty described the cost for the growth that has occurred during the past few decades, particularly in the last 24 years.

Dougherty said Hays is no different than most communities in the U.S. and is still in a position to begin taking action to forestall issues.

“Hays is in a great position. It’s a solid, stable diverse economy, and it has a very high quality of life,” he said. “It has very viable neighborhoods, and it’s relatively compact.”

The look at the future began when Dougherty became aware of the Strong Towns philosophy after a conversation with County Administrator Greg Sund. The basic tenet of Strong Towns is communities are growing based on use of the automobile in an outward expansion, and that growth is unsustainable.

Dougherty said city staff has spent the last five months doing a comprehensive fiscal analysis of the cost and benefit of adding additional infrastructure.

The population of Hays has grown 18 percent since 1991. However, there has been a 50-percent increase in land, and a 62-percent increase in employees such as firefighters, police officers, technology employees and parks employees.

City staff found every house in the city costs $623 for its maintenance liability including streets, water lines, waste water and sanitary sewer systems.

The area of parks has increased from 365 acres in 1991 to 840 acres, and the level of care required has increased as well.

There were 100 miles of streets in 1991, and there are now 120 miles. The city now faces an annual gap of $2.45 million in street maintenance costs with the drop-off in Kansas Department of Transportation funding, according to staff assessment.

“Prior to the 2000s, we spent almost nothing on maintenance,” of city streets, Dougherty said. “The streets were falling apart in the 1980s and 1990s.”

That information has resulted in a change in how the city looks at future progress.

“All of the current findings reinforce what we thought we might,” Dougherty said.

“The current pattern of growth and development isn’t sustainable.”

He used the example of an iceberg.

“If you’re on a boat and you see an iceberg, you’ll have to steer around the iceberg,” he said.

To avert future problems, the city must become more proactive in planning future growth and look at how new development will pay for itself and ongoing and future maintenance.

Dougherty said there is underutilized property in the center of the city that could be used to accommodate growth on the same footprint. He showed aerial shots of Hays where there are empty blocks that could be used for new houses or additional uses.

He said the water and sewer lines have been ignored for decades, and the city is looking at higher rates to pay for repair.

The level of service provided by city employees has also increased, as well as parks, professional gear for firefighters and technology.

“Parks (employees) are not only taking care of more things, there are a lot more amenities that they are providing,” he said.

There are also more restrooms, shelters and playground equipment.

Another example is firefighter gear. The cost to outfit firefighters is now more expensive.

Twenty-five years ago, Internet didn’t exist. IT employees have been added, which are a key to conduct business.

There was also limited code enforcement 25 years ago.

“Don’t misunderstand the message,” Dougherty said. “We’re not saying the sky is falling,” but now is the time to change course.

He said the city commission has given clear direction about the city living within its means and it will be difficult to do that unless the city changes the way it looks at growth.