It’s baby steps so far, but United Community Services Director Julie Brewer said she is encouraged by the renewed willingness of lawmakers and the general public to meet the needs of the most vulnerable county residents.
Brewer and about 200 people from business, education, faith-based and government organizations met Wednesday at a Human Services Summit to brainstorm ideas on how to collaborate to better serve low-income residents. Despite plans for cutbacks at the federal level and the state’s failure to expand health care for the needy, Brewer sees eventual improvement on the horizon.
“I’m optimistic,” Brewer said during a break. “Voters are choosing to get more engaged in finding who’s representing them and what they stand for. We want that same spirit of involvement and engagement to extend to all facets of the community.”
A recent well-attended town hall meeting in Lenexa with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran is a good example of that, she said.
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“It demonstrates you’ve got informed and engaged residents who care about these issues who will make sure their voices will be heard.”
Some 90,000 people in Johnson County live at 200 percent of federal poverty level, she said. Even so, the county has not reached a concentration of poverty comparable to large urban areas.
“I think there are decisions that can be made to collaborate across all sectors that can visibly move the dial on these issues,” she said.
The Kansas Legislature passed an extension to KanCare this session, she noted. Although the bill couldn’t withstand the governor’s veto, Brewer said the passage was a big change from past years, when it didn’t make it to the floor for deliberation.
Still, work needs to be done, said Brewer and the panelists at the annual Summit. Johnson County’s population continues to grow, deepening the need for social services, they said. About 80 percent of the poor in the county work full or part time, so while the unemployment rate has fallen, the poverty rate persists, UCS data shows. About 30 percent of the jobs in the county pay less than $15 an hour.
While the poor in Johnson County have the advantages of better quality of housing and education, they also face challenges. The county’s housing and child care are more expensive and public transit is more limited, and the social service infrastructure is less robust, said Brent Stewart, CEO of United Way of Greater Kansas City.
For example, 40 percent of poor children in Wyandotte County have access to Head Start while only 23 percent in Johnson County do, he said.
Education was also a focus. Twenty-five percent of Johnson County’s students qualified for the free or reduced-price school lunches in the 2015-16 year, Brewer said.
The state legislature’s new school funding bill is a start, but does not solve all school problems, said Patricia All, interim superintendent of the Olathe School District.
Olathe district enrollment topped 30,000 this year, becoming the largest district in the metropolitan area, she said. About 28 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch and 413 students have been homeless at one time or another this school year, she said.
“The hole is deep and the state and school districts are not going to be able to climb out of it overnight,” All said, adding that the latest funding will not be enough to climb out of that hole. “Some people talk about a spending problem as opposed to a revenue problem. I say there’s an understanding problem,” she said.
Members of city and county government also weighed in. County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said jobs are the key, and that training for higher-paying skilled jobs should be emphasized. Ken Sissom, mayor of Merriam, stressed partnership between public and private entities to address the problems facing the poor.
But the officials also had some sharper words for lawmakers at the federal and state levels. Eilert said one of the county’s biggest challenges has been back-filling services to make up for state and federal cuts. He wondered aloud what would happen if people who have depended on the Affordable Care Act lose their coverage under proposals by the current Congress.
People with severe mental illness will be more likely to end up in jail, and others with health problems may go to hospital emergency rooms and public health departments, “at an increasing cost for everybody,” he said.
They were especially peeved about the new property tax lid that restricts how much tax revenue can be increased before triggering a public vote. Sissom called it a “punitive measure” that has hamstrung city government.
“It’s a horrible experiment,” he said. “The state has become famous recently for horrible experiments. The problem is they don’t recognize it and we all suffer for it.”
Olathe Mayor Mike Copeland said local tax decisions are better left to local officials who know the issues.
“I’d ask you to ask your state legislator, if it’s such a great deal why didn’t you impose it on yourself?”