Expansion plans for the county library, parks and transit system took a step toward reality last week as Johnson County commissioners gave preliminary approval to the first property tax rate increase in close to a decade.
The commission on Thursday approved a 3.30 mill levy increase as it set its maximum budget. The latest budget comes to $928.7 million, with $185.5 million in reserves. That amount includes wastewater and other county services with their own fees and levies. The budget minus those departments comes to $328.6 million.
The increase, if it gets final approval, would add $8.26 a month to the tax bill of the average $261,000 home, $4.75 a month for owners of a $150,000 property and $12.66 a month to those with $400,000 homes.
For Olathe residents the impact would be less because they would not be paying the part of the increase dedicated to the county library system. The Olathe library is separate from the county system. For Olathe residents, the impact would be $6.38 per month on a $261,000 home, $3.67 a month on a $150,000 home and $9.78 a month on a $400,000 home.
The increase would bring the total county mill levy to 26.570. A mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 taxable value.
The county has kept a steady taxing rate through the recession, even as property values dropped. But after years of cutting back on personnel costs and delaying other projects and with the recession in abeyance, commissioners have become more open to requests from county districts and departments for expansions to serve a growing population.
The 3.30 mill increase under consideration breaks down this way: 1.622 mills for the county taxing district to avert a projected $13.7 million shortfall. That shortage is attributed to the loss of mortgage registration fees phased out and replaced with a different system by the state legislature; low interest on county investments, and costs of adding more personnel to the sheriff’s department; 0.178 mills for public transportation; 0.75 mills for parks and 0.75 mills for the library.
Commissioners did not approve the top amount proposed by parks, library or transit.
The park and recreation district got a levy increase that would fund about 67 percent of its 15-year master plan. The park increase would add $6.3 million to begin developing five previously acquired parks and 30 miles of new streamway trails and to make improvements at existing parks.
Libraries got an increase that would allow some but not all of the items in the new 20-year plan. The library increase adds $5.2 million, which would pay for new or rebuilt libraries for Corinth, Monticello, Lenexa and Blue Valley, along with other improvements.
Johnson County transit’s increase of 0.178 mills would add $1.5 million for expanded routes to some Johnson County employers and more para-transit options. A new pilot program would add a taxi voucher system for users who are 65 or older, have a disability or meet low-income guidelines. Some grant money and savings from a management merger with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority are to be used for that plan.
The library set some priorities along with each level of its funding request. According to that priority list, the library would be able to do most of the things officials want except for new or improved buildings at Cedar Roe and Spring Hill.
The parks and transit plans were less specific about what each funding level would get. Commissioner Steve Klika said transit would still be able to add the Metcalf connections. Later hours are also on the list, pending further approval from the commission. The JO will also work with KCATA for future grant money.
The park district did not provide a specific list of projects tied to each funding level. Its top priorities have been Big Bull Creek and Rieke Lake parks as well as Coffee Creek, Kill Creek and Camp Branch trails and improvements at existing parks.
The budget approved last week is only a step in the process. The county is required to set its maximum expenditures before the 7 p.m. public hearing July 27. The final vote won’t be taken until Aug. 13. The commission can change the budget by then, but only to spend less.
The maximum was approved on a 5-2 vote, with Commissioners Michael Ashcraft and John Toplikar voting no. Ashcraft said he had reservations about some items, including the 3 percent merit pay raise to county employees, which he would prefer to be based on cost-saving outcomes. Toplikar said he would have liked to see more debate and deliberation among commissioners, who have spent several days in committee meetings listing to staff presentations and questioning them on the budget.
“Over the years the process has gotten shorter and shorter,” Toplikar said afterward. “Even though the total budget is a lot more, the process is a lot less.” He said he thought most commissioners had their minds made up going into the meetings.
Commissioner Jim Allen addressed that point during one of those earlier budget committee meetings, when he said the commission has been considering the budget increases for months.
Also Thursday, commissioners spent a little time updating the employee handbook to make it comply with the latest state law regarding weapons.
State law now prohibits counties from stopping an employee from bringing a weapon to work, as long as the employee is not otherwise prohibited from carrying a firearm. Prior laws requiring licensing and training for concealed carry also have been eliminated.
“So an employee behind the counter without training and without any preparation could be carrying a weapon. Is that where we’re at?” asked Commission Chairman Ed Eilert.
Assistant County Counselor Chuck Dunlay told the commission that the Kansas Family and Personal Protection Act allows employees to carry a weapon at work, but as long as the employee is acting as a county representative, he or she must follow workplace safety procedures if threatened. If the employee pulls the weapon instead, he or she would be open to lawsuit and unprotected by the county.
Some commissioners expressed reservations about the policy changes, but acknowledged they would be necessary to keep the county in line with state law.
Commissioner Steve Klika said he is not against ownership of weapons.
“But when it comes to the workplace I really believe that as a commission or president of a company we have the responsibility to ensure a safe working environment and this tends to detract from that,” Klika said.
“We assume everything is going to be fine but it just takes one incident that will upset the situation,” he said, adding that the county could find itself sued despite the state law.
In the end, the policy change was approved 6-1, with Klika voting against.