Mission Mayor Laura McConwell is not be running for re-election this spring, but her shadow looms large over the contest between the two men who want to succeed her.
On one side is David Shepard, city councilman since 2005 and its current president. Shepard said he’s running because he wants to build on the positive momentum that McConwell has started. During her term, the city has taken on projects to repair streets, build a new swimming pool and redevelop the former Mission Mall.
On the other is Steven Schowengerdt, who served on the council from 2003-2010. “We differ on things,” he said of McConwell. Most notably, Schowengerdt objects to the amount of debt the city has taken on. “It’s not rocket science. Don’t spend more than you have,” he said.
McConwell, mayor for 12 years, left the spot open when she decided not to seek re-election. She has been credited with a progressive approach to the city’s challenges, including a user-based tax to raise money for street repair.
That idea — the Transportation Utility Fee — is controversial still, as is the use of tax breaks to spur redevelopment and dedicated sales tax increases for roads and the swimming pool.
During her tenure the utility fee, nicknamed the “driveway tax” by its detractors, has survived a court challenge and is in its fourth year of being collected. The fee is levied according to how much traffic the home or business generates.
Proponents have said the tax is needed to raise about $800,000 per year because not enough has been spent on road upkeep in the past and because about 15 percent of property in Mission is tax-exempt, creating a heavy burden on the rest of property owners. Individual homeowners pay $72 per year, but larger businesses creating more traffic pay thousands more.
Schowengerdt, however, said he’d like to eventually repeal it. Since the city has already borrowed against its proceeds, that couldn’t take place right away, he said. But he called the idea “dishonest” because it’s a tax labeled as a fee.
He said the amount could be raised without voter knowledge and approval, and that it has a potential for corruption because it would be possible for property owners to call in and get the fee reduced. “It’s just not a very honest tax,” he said.
Shepard supports the fee, saying it was well thought0out and equitable. “It’s is new creative thinking intended to address the current need, which was our crumbling road systems,” he said, comparing it to storm water utility fees. “If you want to eliminate it, that does not eliminate the capital needs in the community.
“Not fixing the roads, if I’m mayor, is not going to be an option,” Shepard said.
Just as controversial has been the redevelopment plan for the Gateway, a 26-acre site at the intersection of Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue. The city offered $37 million in tax incentives to get a mixed-use retail, apartment and office development going there that included luring a Wal-Mart away from nearby Roeland Park to become an anchor store.
Ground was broken, but work on the site has been delayed as developer Tom Valenti works out financing and construction bids. Valenti has said he may seek more help from the city.
That news makes no one running happy, including Shepard, who supported the project.
“I’m not happy with where we are with the Gateway,” he said. “I thought we’d be much farther along.” However the city has been assured Valenti will not simply walk away from the project, he said. And it’s in Valenti’s own best interests to eventually make the development work, he said.
Shepard said the incentives were an appropriate investment, considering how expensive infill redevelopment is.
Schowengerdt also is nervous about what could happen to the project, saying that if nothing happens on the site, which is owned by the developer, it could be years before the city is repaid for improvements it made.
The city should be developer-friendly on such things as building codes, “but not tax incentives,” he said. If elected, Schowengerdt said he’d be averse to giving out more tax incentives to developers.
Schowengerdt said traffic tickets are another of his top issues. He said too often the city gives citations “for revenue and not safety,” and that excessive ticketing without warnings creates an unfriendly atmosphere.
Shepard said he wants to continue to move Mission forward. “Now is not the time to vote ‘no’ on everything,” he said. “It’s not good government. “We’ve got to maintain the city’s assets and keep making those investments.”