Many Johnson County residents know exactly why they recently moved there — or have lived there for decades.
They expect efficient public services, well-maintained parks, top-flight libraries and well-connected public transit.
But agencies have not had enough money to fulfill their responsibilities in recent years. Parks and library officials haven’t made long-awaited upgrades. Public transit has limped along. County government has eliminated more than 300 positions.
It’s time to end this era of cutbacks and striving to “do more with less.”
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Johnson County needs to return to its progressive roots. And, yes, that’s going to cost more money — if the county wants to retain its status as a key economic engine for the Kansas City region and for Kansas.
Four elected officials need to bravely step forward in the next few weeks to approve the funds required to carry out solid strategic plans to create a higher quality of life for 575,000 residents.
They are County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and commissioners Ron Shaffer, Jim Allen and Steve Klika.
They have the votes needed on the seven-member commission to approve a county budget that includes — for the first time in almost decade — a higher property tax rate.
Overall, the tax increase could be about $100 a year for the average homeowner.
Let’s be clear: This is not a tax-happy county we’re talking about; it’s mill levy rate is by far the lowest in Kansas. County Manager Hannes Zacharias eloquently summed up the challenge in his budget message to commissioners.
“The expectation of our citizens overall is that we provide top quality services at a reasonable cost and that we support the growth and future of the county through proper planning in the areas for which we are responsible,” he wrote.
What could more money buy?
The Park and Recreation Department has a strategic vision that would provide better maintenance for existing parks while setting aside tens of millions of dollars to add amenities at undeveloped parks in growing parts of the county. The public would enjoy more miles of trails, restrooms, playgrounds and shelters.
“There’s no doubt that we’ll touch a lot of lives with this plan,” Jill Geller, executive director of the park department, said Tuesday, noting that the parks attract 7.4 million visitors a year.
The Johnson County Library’s comprehensive master plan includes recommendations on replacing, renovating and expanding the agency’s buildings.
Library supporters rebut the “no one reads books anymore” line with facts showing people of all ages are visiting libraries in record numbers. They are not only checking out books but using computers and enjoying the system’s many programs.
Finally, proposed public transit upgrades include expansion of routes along key east-west roads, such as 95th Street, and along the Metcalf Avenue spine. The excellent goal: Make it easier to connect people with their jobs and with educational opportunities at Johnson County Community College and the KU Edwards Campus.
It is true that the newly approved tax increases in the Kansas Legislature — especially a higher sales tax that could take an extra $37 million a year from shoppers in Johnson County — could be used as a cop-out for another year or two of inaction by the county.
But Johnson Countians who support a more vibrant community are tired of excuses from local politicians.
Led by Eilert, the Johnson County Commission should boldly support a reasonable property tax increase to finance crucial investments throughout a community that’s poised to thrive even more.