Ed Eilert sketched a serene picture of Johnson County this week.
With big decisions on building a new county courthouse and expanding parks and libraries already made, and some major policy battles with the statehouse delegation mostly over, there was little drama as the county commission chairman gave his annual state-of-the-county speech March 28.
Eilert delivered notes on the county’s progress that were largely a review of efforts to expand services to keep up with the growing population as jobs have rebounded from the lows of the recession years.
Pointing to high marks the county has received on the most recent citizen survey, he said, “It’s not enough to say that things are good. We must keep improving, evolving and pushing forward. Will Rogers summed it up by saying: ‘Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.’ ”
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Missing was any reference to past conflicts with state lawmakers about laws now in place to impose restrictions on property tax increases or a phase-out of a mortgage registration fee. Eilert did encourage public support for schools and colleges – one of the big challenges the Kansas Legislature still faces. Education has been a big driver for the county’s success, he said.
Last year at the same speech, Eilert urged attendees to call their representatives about an impending vote on a Hancock-style bill that requires a public vote on property tax increases above inflation. That bill passed, but details were still being tweaked this session.
Eilert pointed out that the current county budget kept a flat tax rate while putting $3.5 million into mental health services to offset state cuts.
After years of keeping a flat tax rate during the recession, the county has been on a streak of big decisions the past three years. The commission approved a property tax increase in 2015 to pay for new libraries and expansions on old buildings, as well as development of existing park land and expansion of public transportation.
Now some of those facilities are in design or construction stages. Eilert also highlighted the conversion of the former King Louie bowling alley and ice rink into the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, which will be the new home of the county museum and an indoor venue for Theater in the Park and other community theater groups. That project was not part of the property tax increase.
The center will be open to the public June 10, Eilert announced.
Two even bigger building projects are on the horizon. With the voter approval of a quarter-cent property tax increase, the county can now begin designing a new county courthouse and autopsy lab. And a rebuild of the Tomahawk Creek Wastewater Treatment plant in Leawood will expand its capacity and meet federal clean water standards, he said.
But there is a concern, he said. Eilert warned that Congress is considering the elimination of tax-free status for municipal bonds. Since those bonds are the financial vehicle for those two big projects, the removal of tax-free status could cost taxpayers $150 million more in interest over the life of the bonds, he said.
Eilert urged the audience of about 740 to express their opinions on that to their national representatives.
Mostly, though, the speech was about the county’s strong recovery from the recession and its standing as a main economic driver of the state. Johnson County’s unemployment rate has declined for seven straight years and, at 3.1 percent, is lower than the national, metro and Kansas rates. And 84 percent of the new jobs created in the first nine months of 2016 – or 2,680 jobs – were created in Johnson County, he said.
“Our county has long been, and continues to be, the bread-and-butter economy for the state of Kansas and for those seeking careers and job opportunities,” he said.
The county must continue to support the building blocks that have made that success possible, he said, adding that support for schools and higher education is key.
“First and foremost, we must have adequate funding of our world-class schools and higher education institutions to keep them strong. We can’t forget that education at all levels is the foundation for future innovation, a skilled workforce and strong leaders in our communities,” he said.
Eilert also said he hopes to work with the Kansas Department of Transportation to improve roads in the county and explore transportation options for workers at the fast-growing Logistics Center and Intermodal freight facility near Edgerton.
He also praised volunteers, veterans and the year-old Veterans Treatment Court, which he said will be expanded to serve up to 40 veterans. Nearly 20 are in the program now.
Eilert also lauded first responders in the recent CityPlace fire and Olathe shooting. He called on attendees to remember Master Deputy Brandon Collins, who was killed in a crash during a vehicle stop last year.