Sharp divide over tax incentives marks discussion at forum for Overland Park mayoral candidates

Mayoral candidate Charlotte O'Hara said Overland Park's tax policy had given huge benefits to large companies that small businesses would never be able to access.
Mayoral candidate Charlotte O’Hara said Overland Park’s tax policy had given huge benefits to large companies that small businesses would never be able to access.

Depending on whose take you’re inclined to believe, the use of tax incentives in Overland Park is either a key part to the city’s continued growth and success or a ticking time bomb that will leave its tax base in shambles.

Incumbent Carl Gerlach pointed to Overland Park's top rankings on lists about the best places to raise a family as proof of the city's successes in recent years.
Incumbent Carl Gerlach pointed to Overland Park’s top rankings on lists about the best places to raise a family as proof of the city’s successes in recent years.

Overland Park mayor Carl Gerlach and challenger Charlotte O’Hara squared off Wednesday in a forum hosted by the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce that saw the candidates paint starkly different pictures of the city’s financial stability. Gerlach, who is running for his fourth term atop the state’s second largest city, pointed to high quality of life indicators and the lowest property tax rate of any large city in Kansas as proof that Overland Park was heading in the right direction.

O’Hara, a former one-term member of the state house, on the other hand, said the city’s property tax rate had nearly doubled over the past 15 years, and that it was on an unsustainable course. She said the hundreds of millions of dollars the city has given out in recent years to developer through public finance incentives like tax increment financing, abatements and community improvement districts had made “swiss cheese” out of the tax base and created a slanted field favoring big businesses over small.

“Small businesses need not apply in Overland Park for any tax incentives for abatements,” she said. “It’s the big boys, it’s not the small companies.”

Gerlach countered that the city’s use of public finance incentives had been warranted, and that in today’s market developers often require public-private partnerships to secure financing. He strongly rejected the notion that the use of incentives had in any way weakened the city’s tax base, noting that Overland Park is one of a few dozen cities across the country to receive AAA bond ratings from all three ratings organizations. He suggested O’Hara’s proposal to stop offering incentives would amount to an experiment.

“Running an experiment against one of the strongest economies in the entire nation is a little risky,” he said. “And I don’t think that should happen in the city of Overland Park.”

Gerlach said his priorities for a third term would include continuing to strengthen the relationship between the city and the well-regarded school districts that serve its residents, and to look for ways to bring more entertainment options to Overland Park, a soft spot in some resident surveys. He said the biggest challenge facing Overland Park was the state government.

“Right now the number one greatest challenge to Overland Park is Topeka,” he said. “Topeka thinks they can run a city better than they can run the state of Kansas. And they haven’t done a real good job with the state of Kansas, though I think they’re making some positive changes up there.”

For O’Hara, she said increasing transparency was among her other top priorities, suggesting that the city’s current open forum can be intimidating.

“We need to open the process to the public,” she said.