Five signs of trouble in Johnson County’s paradise

10/09/2013 9:57 AM

10/09/2013 6:03 PM

Johnson County’s longtime success stories — strong public schools, booming population and often excellent city services — get plenty of attention.

But there’s also trouble in Johnson County’s paradise.

Listed below are five challenges that deserve much more future scrutiny from the county’s civic leaders and residents.

For starters, that likely will occur when County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert squares off against challenger and fellow commissioner Ed Peterson in 2014.

Peterson appears likely to campaign on a theme that the county has cut far enough in library hours, park development, transit options and social services. Give Peterson credit for at least raising the notion that higher taxes could be required to do better.

Eilert’s rejoinder was that the county must not seek a tax increase as a “first choice.”

Popular as that stance often is, Eilert might want to wander a few blocks from the county offices over to see what they’re saying at Olathe City Hall.

Why? That brings us to the first of the chinks in Johnson County’s armor.

• The county is aging and its core is losing population.

In Olathe, officials are asking voters this fall to approve a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to raise $9 million a year. The city wants to catch up on all the repair work needed on its existing streets.

Olathe thus joins many other Johnson County cities that need to supplement their budgets with extra revenue to fix decades-old infrastructure. Their mission: Don’t become Kansas City, which ignored much of its problems for too long, leading to costly fixes for sewers and other assets.

Meanwhile, older cities such as Prairie Village (population down 3 percent), Mission (down 4 percent) and Fairway (down 2 percent) lost residents between 2000 and 2010. The hollowing of the older core also follows in the footsteps of Kansas City.

• Personal annual income has stalled.

Over the last 10 years, the growth rate for Johnson County’s income per person has gone up surprisingly slowly.

In constant dollars, Johnson County’s per capita annual income was $44,124 in 2003. It was $46,959 in 2012, for only a 6.43 percent increase. That’s

below

the 13.6 percent increase for the state of Kansas and the 9.6 percent increase for the country.

Income for Johnson Countians was up only $2,800 per person over the decade. That was below the gains of $4,000 for Kansans and $3,000 for the United States.

• The rates of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches have been soaring, an indicator that more families are living on the edge financially.

The rate was only 11 percent a decade ago in the Shawnee Mission School District; it climbed to 27 percent in the 2007-2008 school year and 37 percent last year.

Olathe’s rate rose from 21 percent five years ago to 27 percent; Blue Valley went from 5 percent to 8 percent in that time.

• Recent job growth has been strong but average wages have actually declined.

From March of 2012 to March of 2013, county employment increased by 2.7 percent, according to the

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That was the 63rd highest rate of the 335 largest U.S. counties.

However, in that same period, the county’s average weekly wages

fell

by 0.1 percent, for the 243rd worst rate of the 335 counties.

• The county’s politicians are tilting more conservative, tightening the purse strings in an area long known for spending freely to pursue a high quality of life.

These moves include Eilert’s election in 2010, the selection of ultra-conservative Kevin Yoder as congressman in 2010 and the losses suffered by many of the county’s moderate GOP state legislators in 2012.

Johnson County must proactively deal with its many challenges to remain a true powerhouse in this area and in Kansas.

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