State of Johnson County address focuses on economic growth, future key issues
The 2016 State of the County address on Tuesday highlighted another positive year in the county in terms of the economy, employment, housing and education, but Chairman of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners Ed Eilert said future tough decisions will need to be made to continue that success.
Eilert outlined several statistics that showed how Johnson County continues to lead in areas like economic growth when other counties in the state and country continue to struggle. Johnson County’s unemployment rate was 2.9 percent at the end of 2015 compared to 3.5 percent for the state of Kansas, 3.9 percent for the Kansas City region, and 5.5 percent for the nation.
More than 336,000 Johnson County residents were employed in 2015, which was the highest level in the county’s history. From 2011 to 2014, more than 31,700 jobs were created in Johnson County.
“The numbers that we want to go up are going up and the numbers we want to go down are going down,” Eilert said. “I call that progress, right here, right now, in Johnson County.”
Eilert highlighted several programs that the county, and specifically Shawnee, can look forward to in coming years. The 2015 Comprehensive Library Master Plan is investing in the construction of the long-awaited Monticello Library in western Shawnee. Eilert said the plan is to have the library completed in three years.
He said the county’s emphasis on protecting and bettering local parks and museums will also continue thanks to a increased taxes passed late last year.
Work is under way to complete the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center in Overland Park where the Johnson County Museum and the 1950’s house will be located. The facility, located in the King Louie building on Metcalf Avenue, will also serve as the home for Theatre in the Park during non-summer productions.
With the optimism about the current state of the county and its future also came some pointed questions towards the state legislature and a preview of some challenging issues the county will have to address soon.
“Our future looks bright, but it is not without pending issues, requiring tough choices and necessary decisions ahead,” Eilert said.
Eilert, who is serving his sixth year as the chairman of the board of county commissioners, said one issue is the Tomahawk Creek Wastewater Plant at Interstate 435 and Mission Road in Leawood. Plans are being reviewed to expand the water treatment plant because the 60-year-old plant is only able to handle about 40 percent of the area’s current flow. That means $4.2 million gallons of wastewater were transferred to Kansas City, Mo., for treatment in 2015 at a cost of more than $15.5 million. Eilert said not expanding the Johnson County facility would mean a hike in rates for local residents to outsource the water treatment service.
Another issue is the aging Johnson County Courthouse and the need for a coroner's facility. Eilert said the county has two options: construct a new courthouse that will last 75 years across the street from the current one in Olathe for about $182 million, or renovate the current courthouse at a projected cost of $216 million over the next 13 years. The county is also looking to construct a coroner facility for $19 million.
There are three upcoming public meetings on the topic of the courthouse throughout the county, including one on April 11 at Shawnee Town Hall. A decision on the courthouse and coroner’s office will be made by the Board of County Commissioners by the end of April, at which point the issue would be put to a vote by Johnson County residents in the November election.
Regarding the state Legislature and how its decisions will affect the future of the county, Eilert said the county and all of its residents must fight a property “tax lid” signed into law last year.
Both the House and Senate tax committees held hearings earlier this month on competing bills that would revisit the tax lid lawmakers passed last year as part of a broader tax bill aimed at balancing the state budget.
Under the 2015 law, beginning in 2018, cities and counties would have to get voter approval before they could increase their property tax revenues by more than the rate of inflation, or consumer price index. If voters do not approve of the spending increases, cities and counties would have to cut their property tax rates to adjust to the spending level allowed by the state.
The Senate is now considering a bill, which Shawnee opposes, that would move up the effective date of that law to July 1 of this year, effectively blocking cities and counties from raising taxes in their upcoming budget cycles because there would hardly be enough time to schedule such an election.
The city of Shawnee and the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce are supporting an alternative bill in the House that would leave the 2018 effective date in place and allow cities and counties to use their home rule authority to exempt themselves from it.
Eilert said he too opposed the property tax lid, arguing that a special election by mail ballot would cost the county more than $800,000 and a polling election would cost more than $1 million.
“Success for our state cannot be achieved if our economic development hands are tied behind our backs,” Eilert said.
While Eilert praised the local school systems in Johnson County as some of the best in the country, he did not directly address the school funding debate currently in the Legislature. He did, however, say something that drew the biggest applause of the day about the importance of local public schools.
“Our excellent K-12 schools were built because of a determination and understanding that only if our young people succeed can our communities succeed,” he said.
Eilert pointed to a recent study done by Wichita State University that estimated that Johnson County will double its population of 575,000 in 50 years, hitting the 1 million mark in 38 years. The study also estimates that one third of the state of Kansas’ population by then will be living in Johnson County.
“As I begin my sixth year as county chairman, I have never been more optimistic about our future,” Eilert said. “We are fortunate to live in one of the nation’s best places to raise a family, obtain an education, earn a living and build a business.”