Johnson County should boost taxes for smart investments

The Johnson County Library provides meeting space for many public events, such as this 2014 appearance by puppeteer and ventriloquist Jorge Forero.
The Johnson County Library provides meeting space for many public events, such as this 2014 appearance by puppeteer and ventriloquist Jorge Forero. Special to The Star

The future of Kansas, to a degree, hangs in the balance as the state’s two largest counties go in distinctly different directions in spending public funds.

Fortunately, Johnson County’s political leaders appear ready to modestly increase taxes and invest in smart plans to provide dramatically better parks, libraries and transit service for 574,000 residents, while sustaining the county’s already-solid level of basic amenities.

But in Sedgwick County, home to Wichita and 509,000 people, elected officials announced last week they want to trim taxes and cut many county-supported programs. That includes millions of dollars worth of support for economic development, public health and culture and recreation. County commissioners said this slash-and-burn approach would save a grand total of $1.37 a year for the owner of a $100,000 house.

Sedgwick County’s top politicians are echoing the ultra-conservative mantra heard too often in Topeka, that public spending is too high and people need to “keep more money in their pockets.” Yet a Republican-controlled Legislature last month passed the largest tax increase in state history to balance the budget after ill-conceived income tax cuts drained hundreds of millions in revenue.

With good reasons, Johnson County is headed in a different and more responsible direction.

It hopes to retain and even improve upon its reputation for providing a high quality of life for homeowners and businesses. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 includes the first levy increase in a decade. It also comes after years of pruning the county staff, which has fallen by more than 300 employees even while the county has gained 90,000 people in the last decade.

A public hearing on the budget is set for 7 p.m. Monday at the county’s administration building, 111 S. Cherry St., in Olathe. Supporters need to show up to promote the good parts of the plan; critics will show up to decry what they see as excessive spending.

The crowd might or might not include conservative members of the Legislature’s delegation from Johnson County. They appeared at the 2014 public hearing and forced the commission to kill a smaller tax hike proposed at the time by County Manager Hannes Zacharias.

But things are different this year, for the better. County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and members Jim Allen, Steve Klika and Ron Shaffer appear determined to pursue a crucial, once-in-a-decade decision to make a truly positive difference for future generations.

“The majority of us clearly want to move forward,” Allen told The Star.

Parks, libraries and transit backers deserve much of the credit for creating a positive atmosphere around a tax increase that swims against the tide in Kansas.

The Johnson County Park and Recreation District has a strategic vision that lays out — often by years and dollars spent — how the agency could use extra funds to open new parks, build streamway trails, add amenities and maintain current parks.

The Johnson County Library is focused on making libraries relevant in a digital age and has come up with plans to expand programs, technology offerings and public meeting spaces.

And Johnson County Transit has developed strong proposals to expand bus service within the county and, by cooperating with area transit agencies, across county lines.

The County Commission will get an earful on Monday, and then pass a final budget in August. The evidence shows that spending more money to upgrade services used by hundreds of thousands of people is the best course of action.