Yael T. Abouhalkah

Johnson County’s hero lost a big battle but won the important war

As a Johnson County commissioner for 12 years, Ed Peterson (far right) gained a reputation for speaking in favor of financing strong basic services for residents.
As a Johnson County commissioner for 12 years, Ed Peterson (far right) gained a reputation for speaking in favor of financing strong basic services for residents. The Kansas City Star

In October 2013, longtime Johnson County commissioner Ed Peterson announced he would oppose chairman Ed Eilert in the 2014 election campaign.

“In recent years, we have been treading water, and it is time to put the recession in the rearview mirror and move forward with the steps that will preserve our status as a county of choice for working and raising a family,” Peterson said.

“During the past several years, county government stopped doing the things that made Johnson County a great place to live and work, choosing instead to settle for less. It is time for a new approach to leading the county. It is time to move forward.”

Here was Eilert’s response at the time to Peterson’s bold and correct statements: “There are some on the commission whose first choice is always a tax increase.”

Eilert said he instead preferred a “disciplined approach” of responsible fiscal policies, keeping a close eye on spending after the tough recession years.

Here’s how the story might have turned out:

Peterson was elected chairman in 2014. And last Thursday the County Commission approved the first property tax levy increase since 2006, which will significantly boost funding for the parks, library and transit systems.

All hail Ed Peterson as Johnson County’s hero. He’s the guy who stood up to the ultra-conservatives and pushed the buttons that will create a better future for 575,000 residents in the generally affluent county.

But, of course, that’s not exactly what happened.

Peterson finished third in the 2014 primary. Eilert then defeated former state Rep. Patricia Lightner, who constantly touted her anti-tax credentials in the general election.

Fast forward to last week, and it was Eilert — the guy who had warned against simply embracing higher taxes as a way to improve the county — who provided the solid leadership that resulted in the positive 4-3 commission vote on the tax increase.

Summed up, Ed Peterson lost the battle to become commission chairman. But he won the war over whether Johnson County was going to simply tread water or aggressively do more to provide high quality basic services.

None of this should lessen Eilert’s change of heart and his subsequent actions, all done for good reasons. A lot had changed since October 2013.

The financial situation in the state of Kansas had deteriorated because of Gov. Sam Brownback’s disastrous income tax cuts. In addition, the state had phased out a mortgage registration fee that had provided millions of dollars a year for the county.

Meanwhile, leaders of the parks and library systems had developed solid strategic plans to improve the services they wanted to offer. And the transit system had taken bold steps to save money and expand its routes.

So this year, when County Manager Hannes Zacharias said he needed a tax increase to maintain basic services — and when parks, library and transit proponents asked for millions of dollars in extra revenue — Eilert and commissioners Jim Allen, Steve Klika and Ron Shaffer acted.

Eilert was the right guy in power at the right time. As a fiscal conservative, he had the credibility needed to push for a higher tax levy in 2015. He got the job done.

Now it’s up to the parks, library and transit supporters to correctly use these millions of extra dollars to build new trails, renovate libraries and expand public transit.

If these positive programs are accomplished, Eilert will have burnished his credentials as a forward-thinking leader who acted at a crucial juncture.

But never forget that Ed Peterson had the right ideas all along in looking out for the long-term welfare of Johnson County.

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