Yael T. Abouhalkah

Johnson County surges ahead by passing needed tax increase for better parks, libraries, transit

The Johnson County Central Resource Library (above) and the county’s library system will get more money thanks to a tax increase approved Thursday by the County Commission.
The Johnson County Central Resource Library (above) and the county’s library system will get more money thanks to a tax increase approved Thursday by the County Commission. kmyers@kcstar.com

With calm but outstanding leadership by chairman Ed Eilert, the Johnson County Commission on Thursday morning approved a modest property tax increase to upgrade the county’s parks, libraries and transit system.

Other brave supporters in the 4-3 votes on the budget items were commissioners Jim Allen, Steve Klika and Ron Shaffer.

Opponents — as expected — were Jason Osterhaus, John Toplikar and Michael Ashcraft.

This was a major step forward by the county.

It must not go down the path of Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature have handed out income tax cuts that have slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, leading to a fiscal crisis in the state month after month.

In Johnson County, the total tax increase will be about $28 million a year in an annual budget of $929 million, paid by 575,000 residents to bring about real improvements to high priority amenities.

The commission had to fight back against last-minute arguments made by Kansas Policy Institute and a few other anti-tax groups that the county should not approve the first property tax levy in a decade.

For example, Eilert used his credentials as a longtime fiscal conservative to demolish arguments by these opponents that the county should simply spend down some of its substantial general fund reserves.

As Eilert noted, the county has barely enough reserves to qualify for the Triple A bond rating that benefits taxpayers when bonds are issued. The county pays lower interest rates on those bonds because of its high rating.

In addition, the county can’t use the reserves for ongoing expenses because that action would quickly drain far too much from them.

Proponent Klika pointed out the main reason for the tax increase was to maintain the “high quality of life” that Johnson Countians are used to, making it a “desirable place to live.”

At the last minute, Toplikar asked the commission to hold on, delay a vote and bring in outside “experts” to find money in the budget to avoid tax increases. He also wanted to unwisely lower the general fund reserves, which even Osterhaus and Ashcraft eventually did not support.

In addition, Toplikar claimed the parks board didn’t ask for a public vote because, by going to the commission, the board could get a tax increase that would last forever.

Wrong, said Eilert. In reality, the commission every year will have the opportunity to decide whether to continue this year’s tax increase. In fact, as Eilert noted, with this power, the commission will have a hammer to make sure the park board spends its money as promised — to better maintain current parks and to upgrade new parks with great amenities.

Library and transit officials also need to correctly use the money as well.

Summed up, Johnson County’s commission made the proper move on Thursday by approving the tax increases.

To reach editorial page columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah.