We continue today with the county commission candidates’ responses to our election questionnaire.
Here’s question number four:
What’s your overall view of the role of county government? Is it fulfilling its mission at present? If not, what needs to change?
County Commission Chair
Ed Eilert (incumbent)
Many of the county responsibilities are required by state statute. We are the agent of the state in many areas and local taxpayers are required to fund most of those activities. Some examples are; mental health agency, public health department, human services for seniors and the disabled, treasurer offices, records, taxation and administration office to name a few. The county has jurisdictional responsibilities for the unincorporated part of the county.
Other responsibilities include Johnson County Wastewater which serves the majority of county residents with this critical service. The Johnson County Library and Parks and Recreation are important community assets which contribute to our quality of life. Year after year the county receives regional and national awards for providing outstanding management of those responsibilities. The county has maintained the Triple AAA bond ratings which speak to our strong financial management recognized by the outside rating agencies. USA Today named Johnson County one of the top 25 counties in the nation to live. There are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S.
There are more than 250 citizens who participate and serve on the 27 important boards and commissions. These citizens provide policy advice to the Board of County Commissions on a wide range of important county issues. A community survey is conducted each year to receive public feedback on county issues.
There is a public comment period at the beginning of each commission meeting. During the business meeting, citizens are asked if anyone wants to comment on any agenda item. All of our meetings are streamed on line so any citizen with access to a computer is able to view the meetings. Our website contains agendas, meeting notices and information about all county departments. The publications “Best Times” and “Jo Co Magazine” share information on a wide number of county activities. The Citizens Academy which is designed to share detail information about county operations is very popular and has a waiting list of those who want to participate.
The county has and will continue to emphasize the mission of delivering efficient service, open and transparency in government decision making and involving our citizens in the governing process.
As the primary policy-determining body of Johnson County Government, the Board of County Commissioners translates public will into public policy.
The mission of the Board is:
- Public Service
- Public Value
- Public Leadership
The Board has identified the following strategic goals for the organization of Johnson County Government:
- To be responsible stewards of taxpayers’ money.
- To provide the best possible mandatory and discretionary services.
- To build a Community of Choice where people want to live and work.
- To empower employee innovation and productivity.
- The county Mission Statement outlines the defined goals for the County and the Commission.
The county has done pretty well over the years in meeting most of its goals with some exceptions. The successes have attracted significant growth with builders and developers from around the country rushing to buy and build/develop multifamily developments of substantial size. This dense, fast population growth needs to have planning around it for many reasons. Wastewater, infrastructure, fire, safety and much more to continue meeting the county goals. Better fiscal and future plan is needed.
Over 10 years ago the county had a study done on the growth, demographics, and needs for affordable housing. There has been no action or request to update this information which has most assuredly changed. I am concerned that the current reactive policies of the county will ill prepare us for the services needed to support future growth. The revitalization of the same study updated and a committee formed to start uniting the cities in the county most affected is critical to success. It will take the engagement of the cities with the county acting as lead to provide consistent positive impact. This is an opportunity for the county led committee to possibly work toward developing incentives to the developers to build portions of or complete affordable housing projects. Preplanning can actually channel direction of some of the growth if there is planning.
I believe that nothing worth having can happen without proper planning. What needs to change is a more proactive, interactive, inclusive planning program for growth the way we in the county need it and want it.
The role of county government is to help to maintain roads and bridges, sewer systems, courthouse and jails, parks, libraries, and health and human services. The county is to administer elections, ensure public safety, and help our citizens in need while assessing taxes in a fair manner.
Johnson County is a great place to live. Some things we do very well, and others need improvement. One of the primary responsibilities of a commissioner is to be an advocate for and a collaborator for our communities.
County government is closer to the people than the state or federal government. Our elected commissioners live in our community and therefore should be ensuring that they are meeting with and listening to their constituents. It’s an easier task for local electeds than for those located in Topeka or Washington. I have had many meetings in my city as a councilor and will continue those types of meetings as a commissioner. Our citizens should be the judge of how we are performing. They are paying the bills.
Unfortunately, Johnson County has had many setbacks because of the failed Brownback experiment in Topeka. Yet, my opponent endorsed Brownback in a television ad for governor. Today we are feeling the effects of the tax experiment in devastating cuts to services and the loss of local control.
Some of the most devastating consequences to county services has fallen on our teens as the suicide rate is soaring and on our seniors as community supports have been slashed each year. I hear this from voters every day as I knock doors and attend community meetings. Despite the county’s wealth, many residents feel they are being left behind and find home ownership increasingly out of reach for them.
Ron Shaffer (incumbent)
Most citizens do not realize the depth and breadth of departments handled by the Board of County Commission (BOCC) and County Government. The County has 32 departments and over 4000 employees with a budget of over $1.1 billion dollars. The BOCC oversees the budgets for the Sheriff and public safety, parks, libraries and wastewater. Other departments that report directly to the BOCC include human services, aging populations, mental health, special needs populations, transit, two airports, county roads and storm water.
We always look for ways to improve services and maintain the best quality of life to keep Johnson County thriving as a great place to live, work and play. At the same time, we are always mindful of the tax burden, while balancing services that our citizens want and expect. Public safety is always the number one concern for our citizens. Johnson County and our cities have been cited as some of the safest in the nation.
The BOCC is doing great work, planning for the future, maintaining sensible development and keeping our infrastructure up to date and secure. I hope to see through to fruition three major projects started during my first term. These are the $170 million, voter approved, new Johnson County Courthouse and Medical Examiner’s Building, as well as the new Tomahawk Creek Wastewater facility, a $335 million project (which when completed, will save Johnson County over $16 million annually). These projects will need oversight by someone familiar with construction. My knowledge and skills as an architect have been valuable to the BOCC these last four years and will continue to be as these projects are completed.
Johnson County is at a crossroads. Some of our County Commissioners, including my opponent, have indicated that they want to take our outstanding county in a different direction. They are willing to jeopardize our award-winning and nationally-recognized county for an undefined, untested future. At a time when citizens have said they need and want quality services, including mental health and public safety, we must elect County Commissioners who, like me, are committed to keeping Johnson County on the right track of supporting our quality services, including mental health, senior services, infrastructure including wastewater, solid waste management and roads, as well as parks, libraries and public safety.
Jason Osterhaus (incumbent)
Our role is a unique one, in that the County not only provide infrastructure services like roads, bridges and sewers, but also provide human services. Services like mental health, services for our special needs population (JCDS), and services for those in need of housing assistance just to name a few. We also provide access to award winning Parks, Libraries, and Public Safety.
That role is also unique in that we partner with the state, our school districts, and cities, to provide the superior quality of life that our citizens have come to expect.
Here are a few ways we have fulfilled that mission:
- 1) We continue to win national awards for quality of life. (USA today’s top 25 counties in the country. Money Magazines Best park in KS. Best Park system in the country in communities over 400,000 by the National Recreation and Park Association. WalletHub’s Best City for people with disabilities.)
- 2) We continue to be ranked in the 90th plus percentile for being a great place to live, work and raise a family in our citizen’s survey.
- 3) We are AAA credit rated by all three of the national credit rating agencies. (Moody’s/Standards and Poor’s/and Fitch.)
- 4) Unemployment in Johnson County is at historic lows. (3.1 percent)
- 5) 300+ volunteers of all races, genders, and creeds serve on our governing boards.
- 6) We have solicited citizen input and look forward to the future with our Park and Library master plans as well as our Citizens Visioning Committee.
- 7) We have accomplished all this while maintaining the lowest mill levy in the state of KS.
Michael Ashcraft (incumbent)
Johnson County is a creature of the state. Consequently, our mission, in large part, is driven by the State of Kansas. Every year, we ask residents to give us feedback on how we’re doing. This community survey covers a wide range of programs and activities that reflect our role. For the most part, we do very well. (I also do a supplemental survey of District Five residents to understand more deeply their concerns.) One of the few measures that showed a statistically significant decrease between 2017 and 2018 was the perception residents had on the “Value Received for County Taxes”. This drop mirrors concerns expressed by residents in the District Five survey that showed 11% of the residents worried about tax levels in 2012 while nearly 35% had the same worry in 2018. We need to be performance based and not revenue based. Spending just because we can is not sustainable.
County government is typically the most unrecognized local government entity. The Board of County Commissioners (we have 6, plus a chair) are locally elected officials who are charged with an enormous scope of responsibilities and services, ranging from public safety, public health (including mental health), libraries, elections, disability services, to property valuations and assessments, transportation, law enforcement, courts, parks and recreation district and more. The BOCC appoints the county manager, county clerk, and county treasurer.
In Johnson County life is good, it’s really good, thanks to visionary leaders who laid the framework for the success we’ve experienced here in NE Kansas. Under the Home Rule Charter, which was established in 1999, recommendations for improvements to our county government were proposed and voters approved and adopted the recommendations. The Charter established a Chair position, and defined the County Manager role, as well as designating the elections to be non-partisan in nature. Every ten years the Home Rule Charter goes through an extensive review. So, in 2019, next year, that review will be conducted.
I am very concerned that there will be an effort to make the BOCC elections partisan again. With some of the recent Topeka style politics that have come to JoCo government, it is critically important that we have commissioners on the BOCC that will support the continuation of non-partisan elections for this governing body.
I believe that a qualified candidate that would bring diversity to the BOCC would be an asset to our county government, which is currently made up of seven white males. Now, I love white males…I am married to one! But when we have a county with over 51% of the population being female, there should be more qualified women on that board. I am grateful for the effective leadership that has made our county a wonderful place to life, to work and to raise a family. I believe that I should be elected to serve the 5th District. I will be an asset to the BOCC with my extensive business background, my effective and proven public service, my track record of good governance, as well as adding a qualified female to the BOCC. It’s a win/win.
Tomorrow we’ll have the candidates’ responses to item five:
What’s the biggest challenge facing Johnson County today, and what should the county be doing to address it?