Most of Johnson County’s political, civic and education leaders are not boat rockers.
For years, they have been content to spend the public and private funds required to offer attractive, suburban-style communities and top-notch schools. The county has wooed jobs and affluent residents at a faster clip than anywhere else in Kansas.
However, powerful forces are threatening the foundation of the county’s record of success and its future as well.
As the effects of Kansas’ deepening economic woes seep into the county — and as Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature continue putting in place ultraconservative policies — a big lesson has emerged.
Nap time is over in Johnson County. Local leaders need to:
▪ Speak up more specifically and directly about how proposed current and future multimillion-dollar cuts could harm the high quality of the Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and Olathe school systems.
Some good pushback has come from dedicated superintendents such as Tom Trigg in Blue Valley and Jim Hinson in Shawnee Mission. Still, they and other top school officials will have to become even more involved, especially in discussing Brownback’s hazy plans to ditch the current school funding formula.
▪ Openly decry Brownback’s executive action that took away job protection for state LGBT employees.
That move will affect the county’s ability to attract jobs from companies, especially those on the coasts that might want to open Midwestern offices. One of the county’s biggest boosters bluntly fears some businesses will think “once, twice, three times” about coming to this area.
▪ Push back against the state’s attempts to take more control of local matters.
Last year the Legislature passed a bill to nullify city and county gun restrictions.
In recent days, hotel operators have heard about a bill that could create a 3.5 percent statewide increase in the transient guest tax, all bound for the Kansas general budget. Total tax rates would climb close to or over 20 percent in Johnson County’s hotels. That level, industry officials say, could imperil the county’s ability to attract and host soccer tournaments and other events.
Enter Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach, who on Tuesday offered a needed call to arms to an audience listening to his State of the City address.
Gerlach lauded home rule, which allows local governments to most effectively help residents. “But it’s out of favor in some circles,” he warned. “We see bill after bill from Topeka proposing to remove decision-making authority from local government and move it to Topeka or push state government responsibilities and financial burdens onto ... local taxpayers.”
For example, Gerlach subtly criticized the Legislature’s ongoing moves to tell cities they must hold elections in the fall, not the spring, and possibly hold partisan elections even though county voters “approved switching from partisan to nonpartisan local elections years ago.”
The mayor also skillfully pointed out that Brownback and other governors have complained about federal government intrusion, noting that local officials also need freedom from constantly being hassled by state government intrusion.
Gerlach challenged the audience, especially the business community, to tell legislators what they think: “We need champions to advocate for local government and local control in Topeka, and we need champions from this room.”
If Gerlach can be this bold, others can, too. Hint: County Chairman Ed Eilert’s State of the County address is on March 24.
This long-respected official could skillfully defend Johnson County’s track record, while also providing clear evidence that smart investing in the future — not slashing public services — would help build a better county and even a better state.