With a speech that emphasized Johnson County’s biggest drawing cards — good schools, libraries and parks — county commission Chairman Ed Eilert declared the state of the county “strong,” in a speech Tuesday.
Eilert’s remarks, delivered at his annual State of the County address, urged the 650 community leaders in attendance at the Ritz Charles in Overland Park not to forget why people move to the county.
“Our community leaders in the past have made the right choices by deciding to invest in our parks, our libraries, our schools and colleges, our human services safety net of human services, our roadways and other infrastructure — and recognized those investments as important community assets,” he said.
He urged leaders to “not become complacent,” in making decisions that affect what the county has to offer. “The lesson etched in our community’s history and legacy of leadership is very clear — you cannot stand still, you must move forward and you must invest for the future.”
Like last year’s speech, this one showered praise on almost every county department. Public safety was mentioned, as was Med-Act, the wastewater department and airport. But while last year’s speech reflected on how the county survived the ebbing recession without raising taxes, this year’s focused more on looking ahead to preserve those services that receive less attention in hard times.
Eilert devoted more than one-quarter of his prepared remarks to education, extolling at length programs at Johnson County Community College, KU’s Edwards campus, Kansas State University’s Olathe Innovation campus, and the public schools. The education portion was followed by video presentations on JCCC and school district accomplishments in each of the commission districts.
He also reminded listeners of the county’s importance to the state budget, noting that in 2014, the $629 million in sales taxes collected in Johnson County represented 25 percent of the state’s sales tax revenue.
“The fruits of our labor not only reflect well on our county but benefit the state of Kansas as well,” he said.
“It is essential that our K-12 schools be allowed to continue to deliver outstanding classroom instruction and that higher education and career opportunities continue to be a priority,” he said.
Education spending has been at the forefront of the Kansas Legislature’s session this year, as lawmakers decide how to fund public schools in a way that will meet districts’ needs and satisfy the courts. Eilert did not specifically mention the state’s struggles, however.
Eilert said after the speech that he hadn’t exactly aimed his comments at the state legislators. “The state obviously has a fiscal problem,” he said. “How it will be addressed I don’t know, but it’s important to continue our commitment to public education both K-12 as well as higher education.”
The types of lifestyle amenities Eilert placed at the forefront Tuesday were a big part of former county commissioner Ed Peterson’s primary campaign to unseat him last year. During that campaign Peterson said the commission needed to focus more attention on the public safety net and those services that will attract people to the county in the future.
Eilert recalled the 1950s origins of the county park district and community libraries and their successful growth since then. “These community assets — our parks and our libraries — required a commitment of public investment that today results in the ability to serve millions of patrons and visitors each year, contributing to our collective success,” he said.
The remarks also contained a fair amount of bragging about the county’s accomplishments in the past year, which he called “a solid year of progress for Johnson County government.”
Examples included the newly remodeled youth and family services center in Olathe, which will provide a place closer to home for youths who had been under state care in Junction City, accreditation of the county health department by the national Public Health Accreditation Board and a contract with Kansas City Area Transportation Authority to manage the JO county bus system.
The controversial King Louie project also got a mention. The commission recently voted to proceed with the remodeling of that space at 8788 Metcalf Ave. into a place for the county museum, arts performances and early voting. The King Louie and the newly announced park and residential development at the Meadowbrook Golf and Country Club provide an opportunity for more public green space, Eilert said.
Eilert noted improving economic trends in the county: The December 2014 jobless rate of 3 percent was the lowest in 15 years; more than 40 percent of new jobs created in Kansas were in Johnson County; industrial construction almost doubled from 2013 because of the intermodal freight facility near Edgerton.
Missing this year was any mention of the Johnson County Enterprise Center. Eilert spent several minutes on the business incubator last year, praising the estimated 1,100 jobs and 2,380 indirect jobs it was credited with creating.
Since last year, though, the enterprise center has been on less certain footing. The county commission gave the center an emergency cash infusion a year ago so it could continue after the Kansas Legislature cut its state support. But at the time, commissioners said they would re-examine the center’s place in the 2015 budget.
Later, Eilert said he considers the Enterprise Center to still be an important component of the county’s economic success. He said the county should continue to support the incubator. “They are working on some programs classified as being state related,” he said. He added that he thinks George Hansen, the center’s executive director, is doing a good job.
Also receiving no mention were some of the recent disagreements between county and state officials. Last year, for instance, the county’s statehouse delegation stepped in to object to a proposed property tax increase to make up for the loss of revenue from the mortgage registration fee, which the Legislature is phasing out and replacing with a different set of fees. The county and state have differed on their projections of the impact to the county budget, but the commission eventually decided to hold off on a tax increase.
Some commissioners and the state also have been at odds over the regulation of the county landfill and whether more steel cable dividers should be installed along Kansas 10.