Wyandotte & Leavenworth

Unified Government mayoral candidates face a happy problem

Here’s a word that will slap a smile on the face of any local official:


In Wyandotte County, a sizable bonanza looms, delivering the next mayor of the Unified Government with a pleasant problem. At least $12 million a year — and maybe as much as $15 million — will become available in late 2016 or early 2017. That’s at least twice what the county spent on road maintenance last year.

It’s the result of an earlier-than-expected payoff of bonds used to build the new soccer stadium and make other improvements at Village West.

Wyandotte County officials hope the new revenue is a game-changer that fulfills a vision that county leaders had in the 1990s when they first envisioned the impact of the Kansas Speedway and adjoining retail complex.

“This is an opportunity to take a good city and make it a great city,” Robert J. Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said in 1997 when he advocated construction of the racetrack.

What type of game-changer? Among the options are lowering what many residents regard as too-high property taxes. Or the county could focus on its maddening backlog of street and curb repairs and other infrastructure needs. The money also could be used to beef up city staff.

A third option is using the money to attract yet another sizable development that would one day offer an even larger payout in local tax revenues. But that would mean waiting a few more years for any windfall.

The next mayor, to be elected in April following a Feb. 26 primary, will have a major say in deciding how the money is spent when it becomes available at the end of his or her term. The race became competitive when incumbent Joe Reardon said he would not seek re-election.

Now the ultimate victor will wrestle with the responsibility of the coming great municipal fortune.

“Our county once had nothing going for it,” said former state lawmaker and 2005 mayoral candidate Rick Rehorn. “Now we can say we have something going for us. We need to build on that.”

If a consensus has emerged among the five candidates — Unified Government commissioners Nathan Barnes, Mark Holland and Ann Murguia; and community activists Cordell Meeks III and Janice Witt — it’s a pressing need to lower property taxes. Yet even that priority is not shared by all.

In 2011, Kansas City, Kan., had the fourth-highest property tax rate of Kansas’ 25 largest cities, trailing only Dodge City, Fort Scott and Parsons. Even more problematic, the KCK rate was far higher than in nearby Overland Park, Leawood, Lenexa and Shawnee. Some observers have called the property tax rate the city’s Achilles’ heel.

“Wyandotte County has everything going for it right now,” Barnes said. “The only thing hampering us is the tax situation we have right now.”

Sales taxes and a hotel tax generated by Village West tenants are flowing in far faster than anticipated. Those revenues are repaying the $150 million in Kansas State Tax Revenue, or STAR, bonds used to finance the Sporting Park stadium, formerly Livestrong, and the nearby Cerner Corp. office project that will bring thousands of jobs to the area. Sales tax revenue that was flowing at about $40 million a year reached $58 million last year, said Lew Levin, the Unified Government’s chief financial officer.

The stadium project came after county officials agreed to extend the payoff of the STAR Bonds by six years, which delayed any windfall coming back to residents. The bonds originally were used to develop the Village West project.

The Star interviewed each of the five mayoral candidates to find out what they would do with the windfall.

Nathan Barnes:

Lower property taxes. But Barnes, who has served on the Board of Commissioners for the Unified Government since 1997, also cites other needs: replenishing city staff hard hit from a hiring freeze, rebuilding infrastructure and re-establishing a fiscally sound reserve fund. That fund should hold around the $25 million range, but languishes at $3 million to $4 million, Barnes said.

His first priority is lowering property taxes. “The one thing you always hear is that taxes are too high,” he said.

But other needs are also important, Barnes said, although he isn’t ready to say how much windfall money should go to each of his priorities.

Mark Holland:

Cut property taxes. “The property tax reduction has to be real,” Holland said.

A small reduction won’t be enough, he said. “We can’t do a token property tax reduction. It’s got to be significant.”

Holland also said he would push windfall money toward infrastructure needs, such as curbs, sidewalks and roads. Like Barnes, Holland didn’t assign percentages to how he’d divvy up the spoils. The commission must undergo a strategic planning process to make that determination, he said.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime windfall of income,” Holland said. “We need to put the pieces in place to make sure it’s invested in a way that gives us the highest return.”

Cordell Meeks III:

Improve infrastructure. He wants to see better streets and sidewalks and fill potholes.

“Any extra money we have is definitely going to have to be spent on infrastructure,” Meeks said.

But Meeks cautioned that cuts in state funding could gobble up some of the surplus the county anticipates.

Bolstering the funding of the police and fire departments also is a need, Meeks said.

“We’re really positioned well now,” he said, “to take our success to that next level.”

Ann Murguia:

Lower property taxes. “It seems to be the number one complaint in Wyandotte County from the residents as well as from businesses and those wanting to do more economic development,” she said. “It makes it hard for us to be competitive in the metro area.”

Murguia said if she’s elected mayor, she’ll conduct a countywide poll to gauge priorities. She suspects residents in different areas have different priorities. For example, those in western Wyandotte County probably want to see property-tax relief while those living on the east side would prefer to see something for their money, such as infrastructure repairs.

She said she would work with each commissioner to develop priorities.

Of the windfall, she said the county shouldn’t count on it until the money actually materializes.

Janice Witt:

It’s too soon to say, she said.

“I can’t without my crystal ball see clearly four years from now,” she said. “I can’t anticipate that.”

The county still has many needs, she said.

“All I know is where we are, which is the bottom of the pile in a dead heat with the last guy in the race.”

Witt said she appreciates the county’s growth, but is concerned that the wealth hasn’t been shared with all county residents. But projecting a use for the windfall doesn’t make sense because, Witt said, she doesn’t know what shape the county will be in come late 2016.

“I’m not going to be comfortable about an egg that hasn’t hatched,” Witt said.