Saying the quality of life in Johnson County is at stake, supporters of county libraries, parks and public transit packed into a county hearing room Monday night to urge commissioners to raise the property tax rate for the first time since 2006.
The budget public hearing attracted more than 100 people, some of whom had to listen from chairs set up just outside the hearing room doors. Supporters who spoke in favor of the tax increase outnumbered opponents by about 2-1.
Many of the speakers singled out the library as particularly worthy of support. The library’s levy increase of 0.75 mills would go toward a long-range plan to modernize and build new branches.
The budget being considered would raise the taxing rate by 3.30 mills, bringing the total county mill rate to 26.570. A mill equals a dollar of tax per each $1,000 taxable value.
The increase would be used to cover a projected shortfall in county operating expenses; expand routes and hours in the transit system; modernize and expand libraries, and develop parkland and stream ways. The park system would get 0.75 mill increase, transit 0.178 mills and county 1.622 mills.
The total proposed budget is about $928.7 million, with $185.5 million planned for reserves.
If the budget is approved as it now stands, Johnson Countians outside of Olathe would see an increase of $8.26 a month to the average $261,000 home. Olathe’s impact would be less, because its library is not under the county library system. In Olathe, the mill levy would increase 2.55 mills, bringing an increase of $6.38 a month on a home of the same value.
Commissioners and county staff have said they have exhausted all the cost-cutting measures they could by spending down the reserves, cutting the payroll and finding other efficiencies during the recession. That allowed them to keep the mill rate steady during recession years, even as home values dropped.
The idea of a tax increase has not been without detractors. Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute and a Johnson County resident, said the commission should try harder to find ways to cut. Residents are, “frankly weary of the large unnecessary increases in property taxes imposed under false pretenses.”
“Many residents just don’t believe government operates efficiently,” he said.
The Kansas Policy Institute is a non-profit under the State Policy Network, a consortium of conservative and libertarian think tanks. KPI has run radio spots in opposition to the Johnson County property tax increase.
Supporters of transit, the park system and libraries gave impassioned pleas.
Amy Wright of Overland Park said public transit can help people with disabilities live more independent lives. She also quoted a statistic from the Mid America Regional Council saying only 17 percent of jobs in the Kansas City are accessible by public transportation.
Mae Cristenson of Lenexa said she was concerned about the shrinking green space and habitat. “The role of parks is more important than ever,” she said.
Malcom Gold of Overland park said county parks need to be developed. “I love nature. My kids love nature. I would love to see improvements in the number of stream ways, paths and access,” Gold said.
Denise Mills of Overland Park said the library’s databases are be helpful for business owners doing market research. Database access would cost small businesses thousands of dollars otherwise, she said. “It’s an invaluable community resource.”
Skyler Whittaker, 26, gave the library system credit for saving him from homelessness after his marriage broke up in 2012.
Whittaker spent a month living in a tent at Hillsdale Lake in the summer of 2012 and then moved through a series of temporary places before getting enough of an income for an apartment in 2013, he said. During some of that time, he had his 1-year-old son with him.
Whittaker was studying for an on-line degree program in educational studies through Western Governors University, he said. He hopes to get that degree finished next summer and eventually get a masters in library and information services.
“I went to the library during the day to work on school stuff and then I went and slept in a tent at night,” Whittaker said. “The reason that today I’m able to afford a roof over my head is that I got a job as an online physics tutor. I connect with students all over the world and help them learn because of the Wi-Fi offered by the Johnson County Library. When your survival is uncertain, the access to the right information and right resources can make all the difference.”
But opponents suggested that spending money on libraries is a lost cause because they are being made obsolete by the Internet. Earl Long of Overland Park said Google is an information source, “better than all the libraries in the world put together.” He objected to spending on parks, libraries and transit because they are not “the fundamental core of government.”
Other opponents said the tax increase is not wanted by most residents.
Dennis Batliner of Overland Park said the commission should have a more adversarial relationship with the rest of county government and that the tax increase proposal is based on misleading figures. “We are so fortunate living in a rich area that we’ve turned a whole lot of wants into needs,” he said.
Some opponents of the increase worried that they would be priced out of Johnson County. William Hannah of Olathe said riding the bus to work daily has saved his family enough money to survive on one income and with one car. But now that his family needs a bigger dwelling, Hannah said he fears the home he needs may be out of reach.
“Please look inward first to make any cuts you can and squeeze every penny you can,” Hannah said.
Likewise, Wendy Schuppan of Olathe said increasing taxes will be hard for her family once her husband retires and they are both on fixed income.
Gardner City Council member Rich Melton also spoke against raising the taxes, saying the county should be more efficient and perhaps try to generate income from such things as a charge for library cards.
The commissioners will discuss the comments at the public hearing at their Thursday meeting. The final vote on the budget is scheduled for Aug. 13.