Before a standing-room-only crowd at Colonial Church Wednesday, the three candidates running to succeed Laura Wassmer as Prairie Village mayor shared their views on pressing issues including the teardown-rebuild trend, sharply rising home values, and the use of public financing incentives for redevelopment at the Shawnee Mission Post’s candidate forum.
Candidate Serena Schermoly joined Prairie Village in April 2016 as a Ward 2 councilmember. Candidate Andrew Wang is a Ward 3 councilmember who has served 14 years on the governing body. And candidate Eric Mikkelson served one term on the council representing Ward 3 before rolling off the governing body after last year’s elections. Wassmer announced in April she would not be running for a second full term.
Here are summaries of the candidates’ positions on three of the biggest issues we delved into last night:
Managing neighborhood character and the teardown-rebuild trend
We asked what mayoral candidates think of residents’ concerns with the wave of teardown-rebuild home projects, of the proposed guidelines intended to remedy the situation, and how they would balance maintaining neighborhood character with the demand for new and bigger homes.
Eric Mikkelson: Mikkelson said the teardown-rebuild issue is “a great problem to have,” but still needs solving. He said the phase one design guideline push “wasn’t enough,” and phase two includes minimum green space percentage, street tree requirements, minimum windows and maximum garage sizes. “I’m in favor of these, but still open to the feedback from the public,” he said. Mikkelson said similar regulations work in neighboring cities, and builders can work within them if they have advance notice. He’s worried about having too much flexibility for exceptions and variances. “If we’re going to pass the rules, let’s make sure that they’re enforced uniformly,” he said. He added that the city should do a better job of enforcing construction noise rules.
Serena Schermoly: Schermoly said houses need to fit and “keep the charm in Prairie Village.” She said she supports the majority of the proposed guidelines but she’s not supportive of restricting residents who want to make smaller changes to their house. “My concern is if we pass phase two and we don’t have an exception for current residents,” she said. She recommends being strict on builders. As far as a sound ordinance, she said she doesn’t want to restrict homeowners from building a deck or installing a fence at a reasonable evening hours on weekends. “I’m not going to restrict you the resident from maintaining your own home after hours,” she said.
Andrew Wang: Wang said the second phase of guidelines is another step in a positive direction. It’s a “matter of calibration” between the need for people to come live here and invest in their homes and for the neighborhood of established residents to continue to enjoy living here. “Is it enough? I really don’t know. I think we have to continue to study it,” he said of the new round of guidelines. He thinks the key is to have continuous input from the stakeholders, such as residents, property owners and developers.
Property taxes and rising home values
We asked candidates their view on how the governing body should respond when considering property tax policy to the recent rises in home values in Prairie Village.
Eric Mikkelson: Mikkelson said the increase in home values is “another great problem to have.” “Everyone wants to be here, but I’ve heard firsthand the short-term pain that can come from increased valuations, from people who are living here from the long run,” he said. He noted spiking property tax bills can be especially painful for seniors on fixed incomes and young families just starting out. Mikkelson said he isn’t anti-tax, but he tried last year to reduce the city’s property tax rate while on council, but did not get support from enough fellow councilmembers. “If our appraised values keep outpacing inflation, we’re going to take a hard look at it again when I’m mayor,” he said.
Serena Schermoly: Schermoly said the city should find ways to ensure aging residents can stay in their home or arrange a tax rebate. She defended her vote against a small tax reduction on the mill rate, saying “you’ve got to be a leader and listen to your [city] staff.” Staff had told council that a proposed minor reduction in the mill levy last year would have saved only around $2 per household per year. “We need to come up with creative ideas to put that money back in your pocket; maybe rebates for volunteer service? What’s going to make our city sound and make sure that we are able to provide all the services that are needed?” she asked.
Andrew Wang: Wang said cities view rising appraisals as a valuable trend because it means people want to live here. However, “it certainly hurts when somebody on a lower fixed income is impacted by those rising taxes.” Wang said he voted against the tax reduction because it would have amounted to just $2 to $5 per household per year. “This is why I love this 12-member council,” he said. “You can’t have the wool pulled over your eyes, and you can’t be fooled into thinking that a statement like ‘We’re lowering taxes’ is actually benefiting your residents.” Wang said that if Prairie Village gives up increased valuations by lowering taxes, “it’s extremely tough to get back when we hit economic hard times.”
Use of public finance incentives for developers
In light of the city’s recent history with public finance incentives at Corinth Square and the Village Shops as well as at Meadowbrook, we asked the candidates for their take on the use CID and TIF as the possibility of other commercial redevelopment looms on the horizon.
Eric Mikkelson: Mikkelson said he’s not against public financing, and noted that he and Wang agreed to reject First Washington Realty’s recent request for additional public financing for the redevelopment of Corinth Square South. “I was hearing from residents that a three-story parking garage is not what people wanted, that an additional $3 million in public financing to them was not people wanted,” he said. “You could have heard a pin drop [during that meeting] because I don’t think developers hear no from Johnson County cities on public incentives very often.” Mikkelson said Meadowbrook Park was a great example of “public financing done right; when there’s a gigantic public benefit that you and I as current taxpayers won’t have to pay a dime for if all goes according to plan.”
Serena Schermoly: Schermoly said “no” to public financing, adding that the city’s long-term businesses have “taken a hit” with management fees at Corinth and the Village. “If you give it, then I think we need something to go with that.” She shared that she herself had found it hard to get traction locating a storefront for her business in the city, noting that she had been turned away from inquiries about locating at the shops. “I want to make sure that we take care of those local businesses and the businesses that have left us has been really sad for a lot of us this year,” she said. Schermoly said she does support partnerships but not “giving money away.”
Andrew Wang: Wang said he is “the only one left on the council now to vote against” the CID tax for the Village and Corinth back in 2010. He said that as a pro-business individual, he would only support public financing in “very limited circumstances, adding that “it is not the responsibility of the people of the city to assist in making that investment pay off for that private individual. I think it’s relatively simple.” Wang said there are probably some extreme or unique circumstances in which Prairie Village has used TIF, such as with Meadowbrook Park. But in general, the council now is “pretty intolerant of public financing.”