As dark as things look for cash-strapped Kansas right now, the situation is brighter in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
In fact, the future of the Sunflower State is riding — more than it ever has — on how much success those two counties will have in attracting residents and businesses.
That makes this an excellent time for local leaders and residents to forge ahead with plans to improve the quality of life in their communities.
▪ The Johnson County Commission should pass a higher property tax mill levy rate to finance better libraries, parks and transit service. Fortunately, in welcome and even surprising fashion, the panel appears ready in August to approve the first levy increase in nine years.
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▪ Wyandotte County’s Unified Government and Mayor Mark Holland should firm up a list of public improvements to finance with a new stream of revenue coming their way by 2017. It’s good to see local officials proactively working with neighborhood leaders and others to pull together such a list.
▪ Mayors and economic development officials in the two counties must work with others to end the economically destructive border war. When Kansas and Missouri wastefully hand out large tax breaks to poach businesses from each other, they fail to create many new jobs in the metropolitan area.
The most encouraging development in recent weeks came last Thursday, when the Johnson County Commission set its maximum budget expenditure at $929 million for the coming fiscal year. It includes a mill levy increase to raise about $25 million in new revenue.
The commission set aside extra funds to take care of basic services, as requested by County Manager Hannes Zacharias, who correctly says the county has cut enough employees and services.
Just over half the mill levy increase would go toward putting in place solid plans by library, parks and transit officials to bolster programs for the county’s 575,000 residents. As Zacharias aptly notes, that would help the county by “investing in our marquee services.”
Neil Shortlidge, library board chairman, says the extra money would make it possible to replace several current libraries with larger facilities. Officials also could remodel other libraries and build a few new ones.
Jill Geller, director of the Park and Recreation District, has the sound objective of opening up many acres of parkland, adding public-pleasing amenities that include trails and playgrounds.
The vote for the $929 million maximum budget was 5-2, with Commission Chair Ed Eilert voting in favor along with commissioners Jim Allen, Steve Klika, Jason Osterhaus and Ron Shaffer. All deserve credit for getting the budget this far.
In Wyandotte County, meanwhile, officials are eager to pay off bonds used to finance the Village West development. When that happens, an estimated $12 million a year will be freed up for the county to use starting in 2017.
Holland realizes this is the opportunity many people have been waiting for, a chance to persuade the county to spend more funds on basic services, especially in older parts of the city. That could include repaving streets, tearing down vacant houses, pouring new sidewalks and upgrading parks.
Many residents also have legitimate reasons to expect the county to use some, but certainly not all, of the windfall to reduce the extra-high property tax rate.
Wyandotte County was bleeding population 15 years ago, before taxpayers made the Village West development. Now residents want a different kind of return on that investment. Holland and other county officials must come up with a good plan to reward them.