The Kansas Legislature looms large in the race for chairmanship of the Johnson County Commission.
The commission and state lawmakers battled it out at length this spring over whether property taxes should increase to compensate for state changes in mortgage filing fees that would reduce county income.
In the Nov. 4 general election, voters will get a chance to weigh in on the commission leadership. Do they go with challenger Patricia Lightner, a former state representative who has gotten along with the conservatives from the county’s statehouse delegation, or incumbent Ed Eilert, who has sometimes been at odds with them?
Lightner suggests that the county would be better served with a chairman who has a good working relationship with the statehouse delegates.
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“It will be very, very important and beneficial to the county that we have leadership that gets along with the delegation,” she said, “as opposed to opposing them and running and organizing against them.”
Eilert, former mayor of Overland Park, does not quite go along with that. The county has tried to maintain open communications with the delegation, he said, and differing opinions are a part of that. However, “some viewpoints on the delegation are not consistent with supporting county programs,” he said.
The result of statehouse tinkering with various fees over the years has put more pressure on property taxes in Johnson County, he said.
The commission leader is elected at-large for a four-year term. Besides officiating at meetings, the chairman is the public face of county government, a sort of county mayor.
The Kansas Legislature made several changes last year that had an impact at the county level, but none received more attention than the mortgage registration fee phase-out. The fee, one of many charged at real-estate closings, was disliked by lenders but was a substantial revenue source for counties. The phase-out was staunchly opposed by the Kansas Association of Counties.
Lawmakers set new, higher per-page filing fees on mortgage documents to partly compensate for the revenue loss. But county and state math on how much money would be made up has never matched. When the commission included a property tax increase in its 2015 budget and blamed the mortgage registration fee, some state representatives from Johnson County took the unusual step of showing up at a county public hearing and later commission meetings to protest.
In the end, the commission backed away from the property tax increase. Since that time, a county report on the first six months of this year shows income from the fee to be down $2.1 million in the first half of the year, before the phase-out has even begun.
Lightner, who supported ending the mortgage registration fee, said the decrease just proves the fee fluctuates too much to be a trusted source of county revenue. “It is a volatile, unpredictable source of revenue to begin with,” she said.
Like the state lawmakers who appeared at the public hearing, Lightner said increases in property values will bring in enough new revenue that property tax increases will not be necessary.
Eilert said volatility is something county budget analysts tried to take into account as they figured the impact. The county staff also tried to predict whether people will file fewer pages if faced with higher per-page filing fees, he said. Time will tell which estimates are correct, he said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
The bigger issue, Eilert said, is the fact that removing funding options like the mortgage fee will put more pressure on property taxes. The mortgage fee may have been volatile, he said.
But “if it’s not a revenue source, where do you go? The property tax. That’s the only thing that’s left. And everybody pays it, even if you don’t have a mortgage,” Eilert said.
Eilert and Lightner have fundamental differences on many other topics as well. Lightner cited the purchase of the former King Louie bowling alley in Overland Park as, “a waste of time and money.”
“It was a blunder,” she said. “The only people who made out were the sellers.”
The distinctive accordion-roofed building on Metcalf was to have housed the county museum, the Enterprise Center and advanced voting offices. But its fate has been uncertain because commissioners have been unable to agree on whether to spend another $10 million to renovate it.
Lightner said the commission should look at all options, including tearing it down, selling it or finding someone willing to swap a better piece of land to house a new museum.
Eilert stands by the plan to renovate and use the King Louie for county offices. The county museum needs to move because of a mold problem and a lack of parking space, and the Enterprise Center could save money because it would no longer have to lease space, he said.
There was some common ground between the two candidates. Neither Eilert nor Lightner would lead the charge to build a replacement county courthouse. Eilert said voters should decide whether to upgrade the existing building or tear down and rebuild. Another option might be to build a new small facility for criminal courts. Eilert said that idea is attractive because some security measures lacking in the floor plan of the existing courthouse could be built in.
Lightner said if the current building can’t be brought up to security and space needs, the county should think about putting up an annex building for some court functions like the family law annex in Jackson County, Mo.
On park land development, Lightner questioned the need for developing some of the county’s parks that are not near a lot of residential development. “I’d rather pour money into parks that are being used,” she said, adding that parks with the most usage should get the most attention.
Eilert said the park board has been encouraged to come up with a long-range master plan on how to develop park land and how to pay for that development.
Both candidates said that any increase in the park mill levy should be put to a vote.
Lightner called on the commission to be more transparent, saying there should be paper transcripts of all meetings. She also said that work sessions and off-site meetings, which generally aren’t recorded, should cease.
Eilert said Lightner’s claims are “off-base.” He said paper transcripts are available and all agendas are published. The work sessions are announced during the meetings, he said. “I don’t know that she’s ever attended.”
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration at Emporia State, 1961; master’s in business education at Emporia State, 1962
Occupation: Retired financial adviser, A.G. Edwards and Sons Inc.
Elected experience: Chairman, Johnson County Commission, 2011-present; county commissioner, 2006-10; Overland Park mayor, 1981-2005; Overland Park City Council, 1977-80.
Education: Bachelor’s in personnel administration and history of art, University of Kansas, 1981; law degree, Western State University, 1984
Occupation: Compliance auditor and policy specialist, Kansas Securities Commission
Elected experience: Kansas House, 1998-2004