County Commission candidates on the issues: What’s the biggest issue facing Johnson County today?

We conclude today with the county commission candidates’ responses to our election questionnaire.

Here’s question number five:

What’s the biggest challenge facing Johnson County today, and what should the county be doing to address it?

County Commission Chair

Trinette Waldrup

There is no question that many issues can result from rapid growth. The reason Johnson County will see growth provides us with the items we need to prepare to fortify or change so that the growth will not happen without our preparation and does not destroy the very reasons people wish to move here or stay here in the first place.

Our county is comprised of many very successful cities that must be part of the planning and actions we take to carefully set the stage for our futures. The county is in the position to be the lead in this effort for strength, uniformity, and success. A committee or commission should be formed to bring all the leaders together to look at where we (collectively) are today, where the growth points will likely be, how we need to support it and how we can guide it in some cases.

I feel strongly that we need to be more proactive and look out beyond 5 years if we are to be prepared. It is also extremely critical to work toward a much stronger interface with our state and federal legislators to help them help us to make things better from schools to roads, to property and sales taxes. The more strength and interest we display, work and live by the more we can accomplish.

Ed Eilert (incumbent)

Public Safety is always a top priority. An additional major challenge is providing adequate human services for mental health and a growing need for senior services. We must continue to prioritize cooperative efforts with our schools and cities in providing mental health services to our students and to our policing and criminal justice system.

With the rapid increase in residential property values, we must insist the legislature take necessary steps such as expanding the Homestead Exemption or allowing a certain dollar amount reduction in the annual appraisal value. These actions would benefit seniors on fixed incomes who own their homes as well as all residential homeowners.
WSU projects our population growth in 30 years to be at one million. The legislature must give counties and cities the flexibility to properly manage that growth. I will continue to work with our legislators to encourage actions which meet our communities needs and allow our county to prepare for the future in a responsible way.

District 1

Ron Shaffer (incumbent)

When I became the tenth Mayor of Prairie Village, Barbara Vernon, then Prairie Village City Administrator ‘emeritus’ shared a comment with me about my responsibilities as an elected official. I paraphrase here, “Mayor, the most important responsibility that any elected official has is the responsibility of the preparation of a budget that accurately, adequately and correctly reflects the wants and wishes of the community you represent.”

This comment is one that I will never forget and has guided me through numerous City and County, quasi-governmental, volunteer organizations, committees, and board budgets.

Addressing each of the 32 departments budget, as they weigh their goals and objectives against the year to year requirements of their departments for the upcoming year, is the “biggest challenge.” Within the Johnson County organizational structure, this process is the one effort that effects every department, and the services they provide for the citizens of Johnson County. Budget balancing is always required for the services and infrastructure needs that citizens expect and desire.

The answer to the question at hand is not a single issue, but one of many, since every county department and service depends on the budget. Aside from the budget, these are a few additional critical issues that stand out as challenges for the County, citizens and communities.

There are several vulnerable populations in our county including our senior citizens, those with mental and physical health issues, families struggling to find affordable housing and neglected children. The County has been forced to provide additional support while the State has continually reduced their obligation. Thusly, the BOCC has increased the 2019 budget by $4.2 million to provide additional funding for mental health and poverty issues.

We need to create a transportation system in Johnson County with expanded and dependable bus routes, that link communities in the metro area, to provide workers with job opportunities to better support themselves and their families. To this end, the BOCC and the Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA) are working in partnership which will reduce operation costs for both.

Four of the many environmental factors affecting our environment are; air quality, solid waste management, wastewater and storm water management. The new wastewater treatment facility will put cleaner water back into our rivers and streams. Upon completion, this will save the county $16 million per year by not paying Kansas City, MO for the use of their facility. Additional studies have been commissioned to assess the condition of our remaining wastewater treatment facilities. The construction of LEED Certifiable buildings for all county buildings, will lead to increased energy efficiency and less waste of materials.

My experience as an elected official at the City and County level gives me the background necessary to find innovative ways to continue to work together towards a budget which will not burden the taxpayer while improving our quality of life.

Becky Fast

Johnson County must prepare and position our county for success as our demographics change and our county grows. State demographers are expecting Johnson County will nearly double in population in the next 40 years. We must strategically prepare the county to serve this infusion of new residents that will be more diverse while balancing the needs of our aging population. It will mean focusing on multiple priorities.

Addressing the erosion of funding of critical community supports as identified as a top concern in the recent citizen survey. These cuts to mental health, senior, and developmental disability services must be reversed. Currently there are no members on the commission who share my experience in evaluating and delivering health and human services or have a similar educational training with a master’s in public administration and social work. I also bring experience in accessing federal and state dollars for our community.

We must protect our excellent schools, so they can prepare students for post-secondary education and quality tech training programs to ensure a qualified workforce. This will require commissioners be advocates for adequate state funding for our schools. As a past board member of Mainstream Coalition and Kansas Families for Education I have the experience to advocate on behalf of our schools.

Affordable housing is a growing concern for middle class families. We must balance the needs of our longtime senior residents while attracting young people to our county and ensuring those working here can afford to live here. As a member of the 2008 County Housing Choices Taskforce we developed a report to address these needs, unfortunately it was shelved and no action taken. I will recommend a new taskforce should be convened immediately.

Preserving local neighborhoods’ historic assets in the face of growth. Our county must partner with local cities to balance green space, storm water run-off and economic development with a sincere desire to ensure generations to come can thrive with neighborhood schools, libraries, and parks that are the linchpin of healthy communities. Northeast Johnson County is dealing with costly aging infrastructure especially in older neighborhoods and continual partnerships will be needed with private sources to reinvest and expand safe walkable and bikeable neighborhood options.

I will meet and work with our citizens to make sure Johnson County continues to lead not only in our state but in the country.

District 4

Janeé Hanzlick

The biggest challenge facing Johnson County today is a group of county commissioners, including my opponent, who want to take the county in a different direction. My opponent voted to fire our award-winning county manager, the person who had successfully guided Johnson County to the great position we’re in today. My opponent has also failed to support some of the developments and services that make Johnson County great: our public safety, parks, libraries and infrastructure.

As your County Commissioner, I will keep Johnson County on the right track. I will work to continue and improve our great quality of life. I will fight for fair property taxes, protect us from drastic cuts to county services, and fight for responsible budgets. I have worked for the people of Johnson County for 20 years, and my work as CEO of SAFEHOME, Johnson County’s domestic violence agency, has prepared me to be your County Commissioner. I’m hopeful that on Tuesday, November 6th, voters will support me and my vision of keeping Johnson County on the right track.

Jason Osterhaus (incumbent)

The biggest challenge facing Johnson County will be our population growth and how to plan for it.

Johnson County is projected to be at 1,000,000 people by 2050. With that population growth comes an increased demand on our services and infrastructure.

The good news is that the county has taken several steps to address many of these issues.

  • 1) We have looked to our Park and Library’s present needs and the needs of the future with our Park and Library master plans.
  • 2) The commission convened our Citizens Visioning Committee, who was tasked at looking several key areas for the future of Johnson County: Balancing Fiscal Responsibility With Service Expectations; Adapting to the Needs of a Changing Population; Promoting Cooperation and Building Partnerships; and Planning For a Sustainable Future. Their work is a road map we can lean on when looking forward.
  • 3) We will continue to partner with our cities on infrastructure projects to ensure that our population continues to have access to high quality roads and sewers.
  • 4) Roughly 6 million dollars has been added to our Mental Health department over the last three years, to help address our current and future needs for mental health services.
  • 5) Our Area department on Aging offers a variety of services to our seniors which will be helpful as our population ages.
  • 6) In our 2019 budget we have allocated additional deputies for the Sherriff’s Office Drug Task force.
  • 7) We have begun work on the expansion Tomahawk Creek Wastewater plant which will address our community’s Wastewater needs well into the future.
  • 8) Our 5 year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) has been updated to address the capital needs for the various County departments.
  • 9) The County will continue its work internally and with our community partners, (United Community Services, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, YMCA, etc.) to address our current and future Human Service needs.

District 5

LeEtta Felter

I believe that we have two issues that could take the slot of “biggest challenge”: (1) our transportation/highway/roads infrastructure; and (2) water.

Johnson County is growing rapidly and all of our main highway infrastructure is already considered to be “at failure” (I-35, 435, K10, K7, 169, etc). We will need to address this growing pressure on the system in a different way than just expanding the infrastructure. In many instances expansion is not feasible. I believe we will need to begin to think of solutions that focus more on “moving people” than “moving vehicles” in the future. Our sprawl adds to the charm of Johnson County, but it’s a killer when addressing transportation issues. Sprawl complicates everything and increases the costs incredibly.

We’ve faced a growing issue of waste water in Johnson County in recent years. In April we broke ground on the Tomahawk Creek Treatment Facility, investing $335 million into this expansion. The investment will allow Johnson County to treat all of our waste water, instead of sending 60% of our wastewater to Kansas City to be treated as we are currently doing. The projections indicate that we should be able to handle the water water demand for the next 25 years with this expansion. We should be mindful in our planning that future demands will outpace our capabilities and plan ahead.

Water shortages are increasing across the U.S. By mid-century, experts tell us that we should expect to see less reliable surface water supplies in every region of the U.S. Nearly one in 10 watersheds in the U.S. are stressed with demand for water exceeding the natural supply. Our county and municipalities will face challenges as there is more demand for water and less to go around.

Michael Ashcraft (incumbent)

My opponent recently criticized me for casting some high profile “no” votes, especially on the County’s annual budget. My record is fair game and I welcome the debate, although I take umbrage with her assertion that “No is no solution.” If “no” is not an option, then I have just one question. How high do taxes need to go for “no” to be a valid response?

In most of Johnson County, we pay 10 percent or more in sales taxes. This makes us one of the highest sales-taxed communities on food and medicine in the nation. In some parts of the county, residents have seen double digit increases in their property tax bills for one, two, three years running. What fuels those tax increases? I submit it is the insatiable demand of special, myopic interests for tax dollars. They say NO to providing services in better ways, NO to eliminating redundancies and duplication; or, NO to operating as efficiently as possible.

We do great things in Johnson County. And, if your family’s income is growing, small tax increases are less consequential. Having said that, our demographics are changing. More and more residents are on fixed incomes. As I mentioned yesterday, a growing number of residents in District 5 tell me that the cost of government services is outpacing their ability to pay. As I have often stated, we have a great community, great employees and wonderful services. However, we must take stock in ourselves and question our assumptions about how we provide those services and at what cost. An ever-increasing tax burden is simply not sustainable.

That’s it! Thanks to all the candidates for their participation.