Teardown/rebuilds, public finance incentives and nondiscrimination ordinances: Prairie Village mayoral candidates talk issues at Shawnee Mission Post forum

Former councilman Eric Mikkelson is running for the city’s top office.

Our candidate forum recaps continue with the Prairie Village mayoral general election race. Candidates are city councilwoman Serena Schermoly and former city councilman Eric Mikkelson. The forum took place Thursday, Oct. 11, at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village.

Here’s the list of questions and the mayoral candidates’ responses:

Most people run for mayor because they want to see something happen — be it a change in policy or the undertaking of a new initiative. What’s the one item you would be proudest to say you’d accomplished after four years as mayor of Prairie Village?

Ward II councilwoman Serena Schermoly took the second spot in the three-way primary this summer.

Eric Mikkelson: He said Prairie Village is in “terrific shape” under its current leadership, so he thinks the biggest part of the job is “just keeping the good things going in Prairie Village,” including the streets, parks and police. He does think some improvements need to be made, such as increasing bikeability and walkability across the city. He’d also like to install electric vehicle charging stations in the city. He encourages residents to check out some ideas generated through the city’s environmental forum. “We’ve fallen a little bit behind (from) our neighboring cities,” he said, comparing Prairie Village to Kansas City and Roeland Park, which have installed electric vehicle charging stations. He’d also like to address the city’s drainage issues, which are “not sexy, not fun, and extremely expensive,” but he thinks they will become a greater challenge with climate change and increased population density.

Serena Schermoly: She thinks meeting residents’ expectations is the most important part of being mayor. Her priorities are streets, drainage, parks, bikeability and the schools. She’d like to see more Prairie Village voices being heard and represented through the school community. She’d also like to support arts and “aging in place,” to serve aging residents in a way that allows them to live in their home with the resources they need, such as public transportation. She wants to focus on building a “volunteer core.” She says many committees have been eliminated, but volunteers could help relieve burdens from city staff.

Discuss your position on the use of public finance incentives like tax increment financing and community improvement districts. When — if ever — do you believe it’s acceptable or productive to commit public funds to private developers?

Serena Schermoly: She said she is not supportive of tax increment financing (TIF) and not supportive of “taking money from our residents in that.” She acknowledged public finance had helped redevelopment in Prairie Village. “I have been accused of being in the pocket of builders and taking money from those developers and real estate agents, but my opponent has accepted money from the attorney that supported the TIF and had wrote that.” She said when the city talks about TIF and development, she is concerned about where the city is putting time, energy and commitment. “I will never support TIF.”

Eric Mikkelson: He supports certain TIF projects, such as Meadowbrook Park, one of the most recent projects to receive tax increment financing. He said the city, county and developer worked “very very hard” to make sure TIF funds could be allocated to the development of Meadowbrook Park. Otherwise, he said, the old golf course would have become more housing, and the city would have lost that green space. “That is when I get excited about TIF: When there’s an immense public benefit.” He said the park will be bigger than Loose Park by acreage, and he thinks the park will be “transformative” for the Prairie Village. He said there are some great TIF projects and some not so great. He said he has also said no, as chair of the finance committee, to some public financing requests, including community improvement districts, if it benefits the developer too richly and doesn’t provide enough public benefit.

One of the issues looming over the debate about the teardown-rebuild trend in the city is that home values are increasing at such a rate that more and more homes may no longer be in the price range for some middle income families. Do you share that concern? If so, how would you manage the issue as mayor?

Eric Mikkelson: He said he shares this concern with Prairie Village residents. He thinks the city is stronger when blue-collar workers, police and young families can afford to live in the city. He thinks the city benefits when appraised values increase, adding that this is a goal of city government in the long run. He said the increased values, however, are also a burden on senior residents with fixed incomes. “We need to do better,” he said, adding that he made a motion to reduce the city’s property tax rate and make housing more affordable in Prairie Village. He said he’s interested in exploring affordable housing options, such as building tiny houses.

Serena Schermoly: She also said she shares this concern, especially in wards 1 and 3. Being able to help residents on fixed incomes is one of her priorities. “I think we have to come up with creative ideas to be able to do some type of tax credits.” She said the city must work together as a team, as a council and as residents to come up with a solution.

Tell us a little bit about your professional experience and how it would be an asset in the role of leading the city as mayor?

Serena Schermoly: She said her experience working for a trucking company has allowed her to build policy that focuses on safety first. She also works on bringing the various departments of the company together for a common goal. “That’s what I do well and have done for almost 20 years, is bringing teams together and creating a plan that safety cultures can exceed outside of us coming in for one week or six months a year.”

Eric Mikkelson: He said his legal background and education, coupled with his former role as municipal judge, provides him good experience for city leadership. He thinks his work as a business lawyer also helps him bring people together to land business deals, create jobs and build businesses. He is also a partner in his law firm, so he “knows what it takes to run a successful business.” While he has experience in litigating matters, he said he finds more satisfaction in bringing people together and negotiating. He said his record of negotiating and finding the right deal will help him as mayor.

Let’s say Prairie Village found itself with $1 million more than expected in funds available during next year’s budgeting process. Where would you want that money allocated and why?

Eric Mikkelson: He said $1 million would be “great to have, but it ain’t that much in the scheme of things,” adding that the city almost had a $1 million windfall from appraised value increases last year. He said he’s proud the city gave its police department staff a raise last year as a result of that windfall. Because Prairie Village is “in great fiscal shape,” he would also want to give some funds back to taxpayers. He would also fund more of the city’s police pension plan, just to catch up because the city is a little behind.

Serena Schermoly: She said $1 million doesn’t go far in the city’s budget. She said she has always supported the arts, but she would also like to support the city pool. “We can all do things and kind things and do political moves like trying to lower the mill rate by two-tenths for $50,000, but that pool will bring memories and bring our community together, and we’re lacking in supporting that.”

What’s more important for a mayor to focus on: maintaining what we have, or preparing for the city’s future?

Serena Schermoly: She said a mayor has to focus on both of those tasks simultaneously. “We have to look at where we are on certain things, but we can always do better.” She said the city has to build strong allegiance with residents to identify weaknesses and areas where the city needs to grow.

Eric Mikkelson: He agrees with Schermoly, saying the mayor shouldn’t have to pick between those two tasks. He thinks all of the “great things” in Prairie Village require effort from the city leaders and staff to make them happen. The city also has had forefathers who have looked to the future, so he thinks the city needs to look to the future as well, even though the city back in the 1950s had challenges like development and building roads. As a “mature city,” Prairie Village’s different challenges include drainage and density. “If we have either incompetent or passive city government, our commercial districts would go vertical overnight, in a city minute.” He thinks the city and residents need to work together to see which direction Prairie Village should go.

Do you support the non-discrimination ordinance that will be introduced Oct. 15? Is there anything that would change your position on whether the city should adopt an NDO? Are there any exemptions that need to be made in which organizations are subject to the law?

Eric Mikkelson: Mikkelson said he supports a non-discrimination ordinance for Prairie Village. For example, he thinks it’s “not OK” for a gay couple to be denied access to a restaurant or business that is open to the public, if the business owner had empty tables and told them no. Because federal and state law do not have “clear” protections for LGBT residents, Mikkelson said he thinks the city has an opportunity and obligation to step up. He said he did have questions about some of the format of the nondiscrimination ordinance proposed in the city, and he thinks the city’s municipal judge could fulfill the role of mediating matters rather than a hired investigator or mediator.

Serena Schermoly: She said she believes every resident has the “right to live free from discrimination.” She said that, fundamentally, she “absolutely” supports a nondiscrimination ordinance in Prairie Village, but “what does that look like?” She had concerns that the ordinance had not “really” gone through city staff for its recommendation to the council, and she was concerned that the ordinance hadn’t been vetted by the city attorney. “It is a cost to our residents to look at this; I think we are already at $5,000 (in) attorney fees, and the cost of something, if we do support this, how much money would it cost our residents to fight something like this?” She cited concerns about construction costs to add restrooms and shower facilities. “In theory, it’s great. I think it needs to be vetted. I’m concerned about enforcement. Potentially, this is giving false hope to that gay couple that may have not been able to be served.” She asked how the city will protect LGBT residents and investigate claims.

Does the city currently have enough park land? If not, where do you think additional park land should be looked at?

Serena Schermoly: She said the city can always use more green space. She thinks the city is missing “a good plan” as far as protecting and building the city’s green space and park land. She said she would support having a good plan in preparation for when properties become available — and when the city has funds to act on it.

Eric Mikkelson: He said he felt strongly about adding green space in Prairie Village when he ran for council four years ago. He said he thinks the residents were underserved in this area. One of his proudest accomplishments was working with city leaders and residents to build two new parks in Prairie Village: Meadowbrook Park and North Park. He said adding new parks after these two are completed is not a top priority for him. He said parks are expensive, and “there’s a point when you have enough parks.” He said he would pursue adding new parks only if it was opportunistic for the city.

Should all Prairie Village children be able to walk to elementary school on a sidewalk and, if so, how would you see that sidewalk plan implemented?

Eric Mikkelson: He said he’s a big proponent of sidewalks, adding that the city has a pro-sidewalk policy. He thinks there are a few exceptions where some residents don’t want sidewalks, such as those who live in cul-de-sacs and areas with “very low traffic.” He thinks any significant street needs at least sidewalk on one side of the street. He said most residents recognize the public good of sidewalks. He said the city is going to work on this challenge with its bikeability and walkability plan. He’d like to find a “respectful way” to solve issues with a lack of sidewalks on busy streets.

Serena Schermoly: She said she’d like for all children to be able to walk on a sidewalk to school, but she said the issue must be looked at street by street and neighbor by neighbor. “Does it fit, and is that what the residents on that street want?” She said that if the city adds an 8-foot sidewalk in some areas, the city will have to remove trees, which hurts the city streets’ canopy. “If the residents are supportive of having that sidewalk, I absolutely would support that.”

A few years ago, in response to state law, the city had to repeal an ordinance that restricted where people could carry firearms in the city on state property. If state law allowed it, would you reinstate those restrictions?

Serena Schermoly: She said she believes in local control. She said she would like to look at the ordinance and figure out what it entails. But she would not challenge the state attorney general’s office and put the city at risk of incurring legal fees.

Eric Mikkelson: He said it was bad when the state took away local control from Prairie Village, especially regarding property tax and right of way issues. “This has been a steady erosion over the past few years, and I’m not happy about it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think there’s a statewide solution to gun laws. As a gun owner, he respects the right to own guns, but he believes cities should have reasonable regulations in urban and suburban environments, based on what residents and council want. “That’s what we did, and the state came in and took it away. So yes, I would put it back because that’s what we as a community decided we wanted to have.” He said he would like to restore local control.

What is the most important characteristic or temperament to be an effective mayor in a city like Prairie Village?

Eric Mikkelson: Leadership. He thinks the city needs leadership, which is a complex quality that can take strength, toughness and fortitude, or perhaps listening and being open to new ideas and perspectives. He said you have to manage “very challenging” and “well-intentioned” personalities on the council. “The goal is always to be articulating the vision of where we want to go and marshaling the immense resources and talent and energy and trying to channel it, trying to get everybody rowing at the same pace, at the same time.” He said his experience managing large teams of business lawyers in difficult negotiations to accomplish win-win is a skill he hopes to apply as mayor. And leadership requires channeling “the amazing energy and talents and ideas of you all, of our council, of our businesses, to the greater good.” He said everyone in Prairie Village needs to “step up and meet each other halfway, despite our differences.”

Serena Schermoly: Leadership. She thinks leadership requires engagement, responsiveness, setting an example and pitching in to help. She said a mayor should have to lead by example to get residents engaged, and to bring everyone on the council together to find a common goal “so that we can continue to be the great city that we are in Prairie Village.”