Steve Rose: Voters deserve a voice on parks and libraries

08/13/2014 8:44 AM

08/13/2014 8:44 AM

They could have called Big Bull Creek Park just plain “Big Bull,” because, so far, that’s all it has been. Bull.

The county’s acquisition of the nearly 1,400 acre park in Edgerton in 1998 — 16 years ago — for $6 million sits untouched. There is no money to develop it.

It is but one of several park land properties in Johnson County that is sitting undeveloped.

Parks are not the only thing that has not moved ahead. As the county has sprawled, we have not added library branches to serve the growing population.

Those are two issues — parks and libraries — that made it into the primary election campaign for Johnson County chairman. Commissioner Ed Peterson made it his campaign theme.

Peterson lost, but that does not negate the value of his campaign.

The irony is, behind the scenes, county officials have been seriously discussing putting a bond issue in front of voters next year to fund major improvements in parks and libraries.

Both the Johnson County Park and Recreation board and the Johnson County Library Board are, coincidentally, working on new, updated master plans for the future. Their recommendations will come out before mid-2015.

It is widely anticipated that both entities will come up with significant needs to continue to serve this fast-growing, dynamic county.

Certainly, the parks will want millions of dollars to develop park land already acquired and may want to buy more empty land further out for the distant future.

The libraries will need either an additional central library, with additional smaller library branches, or they may choose to keep only the one large central library and build larger branches. Either way, that will mean millions of additional dollars.

Whatever the ultimate recommendations are, they will, in turn, likely find their way to a bond issue, voted on by the public, probably in November 2015.

All of this has been lost in the campaign rhetoric. Unless it gets derailed, the bond issue is almost a certainty. That assumes Ed Eilert is the victor. If Patricia Lightner somehow comes out on top, we probably can kiss goodbye parks and libraries improvements, or even the chance for the public to decide.

The needs are there, and the economy is right.

What also is a near-certainty is the public’s willingness to vote yes for parks and libraries. If history is any judge, voters in Johnson County have always been far-sighted and generous when these issues are on the ballot.

Voters, too, are almost always supportive of ballot issues involving schools.

We mustn’t forget, there is a virtual certainty that our public school districts will hold elections in early spring of 2015 to keep the dollars generated by an increase in the local option budget, approved by the Legislature with the caveat that in year two, voters must approve the additional local funding.

This may mean two elections in the same year, which normally would be insanity, but in this case, because of the vital issues involved, it is highly likely both elections would be victorious.

That also means the likelihood of a ballot issue on building a new Johnson County Courthouse would need to be postponed. There is no way that could be on the ballot in 2015, as well. Three ballot issues in the same year — schools, parks and libraries, and a courthouse — would be one too many, and a courthouse is a much lower priority to the average citizen.

Hopefully, the 2015 efforts will be well discussed during the critical campaign for Johnson County chairman.

We should find out with certainty whether those seeking this important office will lead the way toward letting the public decide if they want a continued world-class quality of life.

| Special to The Star

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