Meddling Kansas lawmakers cut Johnson County funds

05/24/2014 7:00 AM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

Some think the wedge issue will be the proposed King Louie museum facility.

Some think it will be about the need for more county expenditures on parks and libraries.

Still others believe it will be about a new courthouse.

And, you never know, it could be about Obamacare, even though that has nothing to do with this race.

I think it will be none of the above.

The wedge issue in the upcoming August primary election for Johnson County Commission chairman, as well as for other county commission seats, will instead be about how to deal with a massive loss of revenue facing Johnson County government.

This just in: The net loss over five years, according to county officials, will be an astounding $48 million.

This is the result of the Kansas Legislature eliminating over five years the mortgage registration fee, where lenders pay county government the fees collected from buyers of property. (The Legislature also approved new fees on document filings, which will raise a small amount of money.)

The mortgage registration fee has been in place in Kansas since 1925. And counties have come to rely on that income to run their governments.

But no more.

State Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leawood Republican, compared the fees to pickpocketing. He was quoted in The Wichita Eagle as saying, “It’s just an unfair tax, and it’s a hidden tax. Nobody realizes that they’re paying it. It’s just another hidden way for them to get into taxpayers’ pockets without them knowing it.”

Melcher’s next statement may be prescient.

“If county governments need to make up the lost revenue, they should have to raise their mill levies, or property taxes, and be held accountable by voters for doing so.”

Melcher and other Republican legislators threw the 105 counties in Kansas a hot potato, but particularly in Johnson County, where transactions on property generate a sizable amount of revenue to run a growing county of well over a half million residents.

In testimony in Topeka, County Chairman Ed Eilert told legislators that losing this revenue would be like a “second great recession” for Johnson County, and the loss of fees would very likely bring property tax increases.

The last increase in the property tax was in 2006, which mostly went to expanding the county jail.

So it isn’t like a property tax increase today, to offset the devastating impact of losing the mortgage registration fee income, would be part of a pattern of tax increases, although that’s what you would likely hear in a campaign.

On the contrary, an increase in the mill levy would stand out as the exception.

It is too soon to know whether Eilert or any of the other commissioners would recommend a property tax increase to make up for the lost revenues. And we have yet to hear from other candidates for the county commission on whether they would support a mill levy increase.

A sneak peak to what the county faces will appear June 2 when the county manager’s budget recommendations are revealed. The issue will be debated by the commission this month and next, and recommendations from commissioners would be voted on before the August 5 primary.

A hike in the mill levy should definitely be on the table. No one likes tax increases but this time it may be unavoidable. We can thank Topeka for that.

In this day and age, any public official who votes for a tax increase of any kind for any reason gets hammered. But there may be no viable choice.

At risk is the funding of parks, libraries and other vital services to its citizens.

Johnson County is facing a genuine crisis, thanks to Melcher and the others who meddle in local county government.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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