What path should Johnson County government take? Three candidates for county chair differ on outlook

07/10/2014 5:19 PM

07/10/2014 5:56 PM

The three candidates for chairman of the Johnson County Commission have markedly different opinions on what county government’s path should be, now that the recession is fading and the economy is turning around.

Ed Peterson, former mayor of Fairway and three-term county commissioner, thinks a constant tax rate should be de-emphasized in favor of more attention to maintaining or restoring services that make the county a good place to live and meeting the needs of the poor, aging and disabled population.

Ed Eilert, the incumbent and former Overland Park mayor, points to the steady tax rate as one of his main accomplishments. He says the county should look at quality of life issues and should work more with the cities and school districts to make improvements.

And Patricia Lightner, former Kansas representative, says she wants to stop the “business as usual” of property tax increases and wasteful government spending.

The commission chairman is elected at-large and serves a four-year term. The job pays $75,999 a year.

The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 5 primary will advance to the Nov. 4 general election.

Peterson said he entered the race because, “I have become concerned in recent years that the sole focus has been on maintaining a constant mill levy and reducing service and investments.”

The commission should be careful about tax increases, he said. But a higher priority should be placed on keeping the amenities that make the county an attractive place.

For instance, development of parks has been delayed and services at libraries have been cut because of dwindling revenues during the recession. The county should look at the best way to build those services back as the economy improves and the population grows, he said.

He also said he’s sorry to see the county pull back from plans to expand the public transportation system, which is a service necessary for many. And he said he’d take a strategic approach to meeting the needs of the economically vulnerable.

“All those issues need more attention than they receive,” he said.

Eilert said his first term as chairman was during some of the most difficult economic times in memory. The county lost tax revenue during the Great Recession, and state and federal governments as well as citizens cut back on spending. “Yet the county was able to continue basic core services and not raise the property tax mill levy even though homes lost assessed valuation,” he said.

Eilert said the county needs to focus on the things that attract and hold residents now that the crisis has passed. He said he’d like to see more collaboration between the county and school districts and cities as a way of doing that.

One example might be in public transit, he said. Since public transit supports redevelopment efforts, Eilert said, cities and the county should explore an arrangement in which part of the money from public subsidies like special taxing districts goes toward transit.

Lightner said she entered the race to stop what she views as wasteful spending of tax dollars and “the continuing cycle of property taxes always going up.”

“I’m not certain tax dollars are being spent as efficiently and effectively as they could be,” she said. Revenue is going up anyway because taxes are a percentage of home values, which are increasing, she said.

The commission is considering a proposal from the county manager’s office that would raise the mill levy 0.814 mills to begin to make up for lost revenue from the mortgage registration fee. The Kansas Legislature ended the registration fee this year. The fee was paid at closing and was a percentage of the amount borrowed.

County commissioners were critical of the Legislature’s action, but Lightner said she supports the ending of the mortgage registration fee.

“It’s the little guy that pays that tax,” she said. The mortgage registration fee’s demise is an excuse to raise the mill levy to collect far more money than the county is expected to lose, she added.

On other issues:

The former King Louie: Lightner points to the purchase of the former King Louie bowling alley at 8788 Metcalf Ave. as a prime example of wasteful spending. “It was a piece of junk building to begin with. Why would anybody buy that building?” she said.

The commission has debated putting the Johnson County Museum, Enterprise Center and some other county offices there.

But now that the county does own it, she said she doesn’t have a plan for its use. “I guarantee one thing, it will be a loss to the taxpayer,” she said.

Eilert has supported the purchase and remodeling of the building and recently tried to get plans for its re-use back on track. The future of the building has been stalled because commissioners could not agree to issue $10.3 million in bonds to redo it. Eilert said the museum still needs to move from its current locale, which has suffered mold problems, and that moving the Enterprise Center there would save around $225,000 to $250,000 on rent.

Peterson said he still supports moving the museum and the right mix of other county services into the King Louie. But commissioners learned a lesson about jumping in too quickly to buy the property without a well thought out plan, he said. “If we could do it over we would not finalize it until there was a little better plan to go to the public,” he said.

Courthouse: Peterson said studies over the past 20 years clearly demonstrate the need for a new courthouse, and that need has increased over the years. “I do support a new courthouse. The sooner we get on with that activity the better.”

Eilert said he’d like to see a ballot issue so voters can decide whether to build a new courthouse or remodel and add to the current one.

Lightner was skeptical of the need to build a new courthouse. “Why do we have to tear down a perfectly good building?" she said. Lightner said the county could consider moving some court functions into another building, as Jackson County does.

ED EILERT

Age: 74

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.

Website: edeilertcountychair.com

PATRICIA LIGHTNER

Age: 56

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

Website: patricialightner.org

EDWARD PETERSON

Age: 63

Education: Bachelor’s in political science and philosophy, Wichita State University, 1974

Occupation: Lawyer

Elected experience: Johnson County Commission, 2003-present; mayor of Fairway, 1993-2002; Fairway City Council, 1988-1993

Website: edpeterson.org

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