Northeast Joco

March 18, 2014

Mission’s council candidates focus on Gateway, driveway tax

Has the city taken on too much debt?

Mission has made some big decisions the past few years. A user-based fee is being collected to pay for street repairs. A new swimming pool is in the works. And ground has been broken for the redevelopment of the former Mission Mall.

Now voters have a choice to make. Do they continue in the direction set by the current city council and outgoing Mayor Laura McConwell? Or do they pull back from the large-scale spending that critics say is driving the city too far into debt?

For those who want to scale back, this election is part two of an effort that began in 2012, in the aftermath of the 2010 inception of the Transportation Utility Fee. That fee, dubbed the “driveway tax” by critics, is collected from property owners based on how much traffic they create, with homeowners paying about $72 a year and businesses paying much more.

The fee generates about $800,000 a year for road repairs, city officials say. But it also generated the anger of some who thought it was an excise tax the city shouldn’t be allowed to levy. The fee became the centerpiece of a campaign by opponents to remove its supporters from office. In the 2012 election, two incumbents lost re-election bids.

This year, the blog still urges readers to “rise up AGAIN and vote them out!” The blog’s creator, Bill Nichols, is himself running for a council seat.

Nichols was a plaintiff last week in an appeal of an earlier district court ruling that the fee is legal.

Also causing angst is the news that work has been delayed at the site of the Gateway, a 26-acre retail/office/residential center to be anchored by Wal-Mart at the intersection of Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue. The development, years in the works, includes a $37 million tax incentive package from the city. The developer has said work will continue but that further financial help may be needed from the city.

There are three contested races for city council. In Ward 3, Debbie Kring runs unopposed.

Ward 1

Two newcomers are competing for the seat that will be vacated by Lawrence Andre, who chose not to run for another term.

Steven Lucas, 31, a project manager at a construction firm, and Jay Meyer, 67, a retired business owner, want to succed Andre. Neither has been elected to public office before.

Lucas said he’s running to give more of a voice to young families in the city.

Lucas said the transportation utility fee is preferable to a mill levy increase to maintain roads. “It is a creative tool to maintain the quality of life in Mission,” he said.

On Gateway, Lucas said the situation is “not ideal,” but a blighted shopping mall would have been worse than the vacant ground now at the site.

Meyer is not against the project, but said “it’s sad to see what’s happened and the developer has not been held to task.”

Meyer doesn’t have a problem with the transportation utility fee as long as funds are accounted for and spent properly.

Meyer said his aim is to get the city to change its administration from a city administrator to a city manager. He said a city administrator answers more to the mayor, while a city manager would serve the entire council.

Ward 2

Business analyst Arcie Rothrock, 31, is challenging incumbent William Vandenberg, 47.

Rothrock said she’s running because she wants to see the city add a newsletter or other means of communication about events besides the website.

Rescinding the transportation utility fee is problematic because the city already has it in the budget, Rothrock said. “I feel like in time we should have the ability to move away from it,” she said. The tax should at least be periodically reviewed, she said.

On Gateway, Rothrock said the city should have been more cautious and done more research on the developer’s track record of bringing projects to fruition in a timely way. She said she’d examine tax breaks such as special taxing districts on a case-by-case basis. “I hate saying always or never.”

Vandenberg noted that he didn’t vote for the Gateway plan when it came to the council for funding approval, “and I doubt I will if ever asked again.”

Vandenberg said the transportation utility fee should be looked at each budget cycle, when it can be raised or lowered based on the city’s needs. The fee is a useful way to raise funds for the deteriorating streets, which he called a “huge issue.”

Vandenberg said he wants to stay on the council to control spending.

Ward 4

Bill Nichols, who has campaigned through his blog against the driveway tax from the beginning, challenges incumbent Suzie Gibbs, who has been on the council more than 20 years on and off since 1978.

Nichols, 73, said he would like to reduce the city’s spending and phase out or eliminate the tax, not so much for the small amount homeowners pay but for the larger burden on businesses. That burden hurts retailers along Johnson Drive as well as larger stores that pay thousands of dollars a year, he said.

Nichols has long been skeptical of the city’s approach to development at the Gateway. He notes on his blog the number of delays and setbacks the project has had, pointing out that Wal-Mart, the premier tenant, could still opt to stay in its space in Roeland Park.

Gibbs supports the transportation utility fee and said her primary reason for running is to see a revitalized Johnson Drive with thriving small businesses as well as to continue the positive momentum for getting the Gateway developed. “Honestly, people are excited about what’s going on,” she said.

Gibbs said she’s convinced, after talking to developer Tom Valenti, that he will be able to pull the project off. “I believe in Tom,” she said. “I believe we’re going to have a great east Gateway. Is it taking too long? Yes.”

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