Polling problems from the August primary election, funds for public services and affordable housing were just a few of the issues raised at the final candidate forum hosted by the Johnson County League of Women Voters last weekend.
Candidates for the Johnson County commissioner seats gave their responses, including incumbent Ron Shaffer and challenger Becky Fast for the District 1 seat, and both candidates for the county-wide chair, incumbent Ed Eilert and challenger Trinette Waldrup.
Here is the single question posed by the Johnson County League of Women Voters and the candidates’ individual responses:
What should the board of county commissioners do if the August primary election problems occur again on Nov. 6?
Ron Shaffer: He said a clause in the county’s $10.5 million contract with ES&S indicates that the county will not have to completely pay off the contract — of which the county has paid less than $50,000 so far for ballot supplies — “if indeed we are not successful in the correct tallies or timing of the effort on Nov. 6.”
Ed Eilert: He said ES&S staff has told him the county will not pay for the voting software if it doesn’t work “as prescribed” on election night. In that event, the county will hire another vendor, and ES&S “will not be paid.” Eilert said there has been “much testing done on the adjusted software.” “We have assurances that it’s going to work.”
Becky Fast: She said she’s heard from Johnson County voters that they are nervous the ballot software won’t work. “They are concerned that we’ve placed blind trust in a vendor that was called out by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee for not meeting security protocols.” She said there needs to be a call for an investigation from outside experts to ensure that digital voting is connected to paper ballots. “We must instill public confidence; we have the two most competitive races in the nation. If we wait till election night and it’s a debacle, votes aren’t counted, another lawsuit, it is too late.”
Trinette Waldrup: She cited the Johnson County Election Office’s voting issues in 2016 as an indicator that this remains a problem. She is concerned with “antiquated laws” of appointing election commissioners, as the Kansas Secretary of State is charged with that appointment. As county chair, she would like to get state legislators involved so local government “can take back control of our elections.” “Quite honestly, with our voting machines as of today, I felt like they just were not ready for this election cycle, and they shouldn’t have been used.”
Ed Eilert rebutted with the following remarks: Eilert said that prior to this year’s past legislative session, the Johnson County board of commissioners “had no authority” over the election officer or the election office’s budget. Furthermore, the election office “did not have the same personnel policies” as the county. Eilert said the commissioners asked the Kansas Legislature this past session requesting budget authority over the election office, identical personnel policies between the county election office and Johnson County and a new process for appointing the election commissioner — instead of appointment by the Kansas Secretary of State. The Kansas Legislature told the commissioners it could grant their first two requests, but not the request for a new appointment process.
Here are the questions posed by members of the audience and the candidates’ responses:
How will you address old Overland Park parking issues? Clearly, all the new apartments are going to create congestion.
Trinette Waldrup: She said parking and congestion issues fall under the Overland Park city council’s jurisdiction. As county chair, she would like to engage more and build collaborative relationships with city councils. “If we can at least lead in efforts, when it comes to development in Overland Park — and also everywhere in Johnson County — that’s one of the things we need to look at, is the growth, forecasting to see where the areas are.” She would like to work more with city officials to combat parking and congestion issues.
Ed Eilert: He said cities have their own jurisdiction over parking and congestion issues. The county only has jurisdiction over unincorporated areas of the county. He said he meets monthly with city leaders in Johnson County to exchange information and work through issues. He plans to continue these meetings.
Becky Fast and Ron Shaffer did not respond, as the question was directed to Waldrup.
As a Prairie Village resident who is retiring, I’m concerned about being able to remain in the area. Question 1: What will you do to ensure affordable housing in northeast Johnson County Question 2: Have you taken money from any of these developers building these expensive, luxury apartments and condos during any of your campaigns?
Ron Shaffer: He said he doesn’t recall receiving any contributions from people who design and build luxury condos. He has received funds from certain developers and contractors in the surrounding area. Shaffer added that “there is no available land” in Prairie Village, one of the densest cities in the county, unless buyers are willing to pay for property at a high expense. He mentioned the Tutera project, Mission Chateau senior living community. He said he’s heard from a number of seniors who feel that they “are being pressed out of their homes.” He said new housing standards are coming soon, and he hopes Prairie Village city leaders can talk with interested builders and contractors “who could perform that type of service to bring affordable housing to Prairie Village.” He said it will be a challenge for many parts of northeast Johnson County as well, “to provide correct homes and apartments for people that can afford them and being able to build them economically, because the price of construction continues to rise on a daily basis.”
Becky Fast: She said Johnson County needs to begin focusing on affordable housing, adding that the League of Women Voters and United Community Services of Johnson County are both tackling affordable housing. She said she served on the 2008 Housing Choices Task Force which created a report on this problem. “I believe we need to get that report off the shelf and start bringing together all the developers, bringing together stakeholders, to develop more affordable housing.” She cited housing trust funds in Douglas County and in Missouri as examples Johnson County could follow.
Ed Eilert: He said the Kansas Legislature determines relief on property taxpayers, and that state law requires all residential property to be appraised based on market comparisons. “That is the issue that we face; the board of county commissioners has no ability adjust that process,” he said, adding that it’s overseen by the state property valuation department. He said the state legislature can expand exemptions to cover seniors who could receive a credit based on the amount of property taxes they pay. The state can also give everyone a $1 reduction in their final appraisal, he added. “Both of those things, I believe, can be done by legislative action and would be beneficial.”
Trinette Waldrup: She sees affordable housing from two ways. Firstly, she wants to make sure property is being assessed and appraised in an equitable and fair way. Secondly, she wants to work with developers building luxury homes to incentivize them to build homes that are affordable for those working in the service industry, hospitality, restaurants and also school teachers. Finally, she understands the state legislature’s authority over property valuations and tax rates, but she wants the county to be more engaged and work collaboratively with the state on issues like affordable housing.
There have been many complaints by the current county commissioners about the lack of state funding during the Brownback administration, yet many of the commissioners endorsed Brownback and were silent when he was challenged in 2014. Will you pledge to support Laura Kelly…(the rest of the question was drowned out by applause)?
Ed Eilert: He said he is a nonpartisan race, so he will not endorse any partisan, Republican or Democratic, candidates. He supports nonpartisanship of the board of county commissioners. “I think to do otherwise would not be in the spirit of our county charter and would be contrary to what our county charter proposes.” He said he will not endorse Laura Kelly.
Ron Shaffer: He said that in Gov. Brownback’s first term, almost every mayor in Johnson County endorsed him. “We were convinced that he was the right person at the right time, but that support for him and his positions and how it affected our economy in Johnson County quickly abated.” At the next election, he said he didn’t know of any mayor who endorsed Brownback in his re-election race.
Becky Fast: She said there were many mayors who did not endorse Brownback because “they knew that Brownback had supported school vouchers.” She said she saw firsthand, working for Congressman Dennis Moore, “how devastating Brownback had been, his policies.” Four years later, she said Johnson County commissioners, including Ron Shaffer, were silent when Brownback’s seat was up for re-election. “We can’t keep hearing, ‘Terrible state, terrible state.’ Well, it’s not going to be fun if we continue the Brownbackian policies for four more years. We will have devastation to our state and our county.”
Trinette Waldrup: She said that, regardless of who is governor, it’s more important as county chair to be able to foster relationships and work in a team environment. “We just want to make sure, too, that we can fight for what’s right in Johnson County.”
How does the county respond to a change in funding if the state leadership and state legislators return to a program of tax cuts and slashing spending as they had promised?
Becky Fast: She said she’s worked with state legislators to advocate for human services. “We need commissioners who can negotiate, who can advocate with them. I feel I bring that skill of understanding the federal environment.” She said that while she worked for Congressman Dennis Moore, her team “brought millions of dollars in” for stormwater funds as well as funds for the Johnson County Mental Health Center. “It takes standing up now, that we don’t want to go that path, and it takes continually standing up.” She thinks Johnson Countians support good government. She cited funds for mental health services sought by Clay and Platte counties for their residents as examples to follow.
Ed Eilert: He said he has spent much of his time in Topeka working with state government and offering testimony in senate and house committees. He also meets on a regular basis with legislative leaders as well as members of the Johnson County legislative delegation. “That’s so important; Topeka is a big place, and trying to get legislation through that’s not supported by the governor or the leadership is extremely, extremely difficult.” He said that if Kansas goes back to “the Brownback days,” it will be “extremely tough on all levels of government,” including K-12 schools. He also raised awareness of the “dark store theory” in which big box retailers are trying to get their property taxes reduced 40 to 50 percent because “they want their property valued as though they have no customers.” He said the commissioners are fighting that process.
Trinette Waldrup: She said, again, it’s important to work with state legislators in a collaborative, teamwork environment. Her experience working in Medicare has taught her that it takes “a lot of time and effort” when working with “seven different departments just to get one thing done.” She said being open-minded, innovative and adaptive to change are skills she said will help her as county chair.
What plan should the county have to build a comprehensive public transportation system?
Ed Eilert: He said public transportation is a challenge in Johnson County, since many homes in the suburban areas have many cars in each driveway and a lack of density to support public transportation. In other places nationwide, he sees that fares only pay for 15 percent of the cost to operation public transportation, and taxpayers must subsidize the rest of it. Johnson County is working with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and has plans to work with Uber and other ridesharing and taxi services, he said, adding that the county has a pilot program with transports running from Kansas City to parts of Johnson County. “We are looking at the entire spectrum of options in public transportation,” he said.
Ron Shaffer: He said the commissioners constantly talk about the state of public transportation for the present and future. He cited the county’s alliance with Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and other counties in the Midwest. “We’re moving forward with all kinds of plans that would improve the capabilities of our citizens to have access to transportation,” he said, adding that the county’s greatest concern is getting citizens to their jobs, specifically in the southwest part of the county. He said research is being conducted to provide new options for public transportation. “We always hear the complaint that they see we have empty buses going up and down their streets, but a lot of them are going back to their stations,” he said, adding that the county is finding ways to improve the system.
Becky Fast: She said Johnson County ranks 40th in the nation on providing public transportation for workers to their jobs. “Trying to connect our transit to our growing job sector is an ongoing challenge,” she said, adding that the county’s population could increase by 40 to 50 percent over the next 30 or 40 years. Highways will also become more congested, she said.
Trinette Waldrup: She said population growth and transportation in Johnson County will be a challenge, but she recommends the county do a five-year study to see what needs to be done. She thinks the county should work with city leaders to identify populated areas where it’s beneficial to have public transportation. “It’s going to take the leadership of BOCC to get that done and be able to combine all of the city leaders to look at our traffic studies and be able to have public transportation,” she said, adding that this issue is more important for the county’s aging population and their needs to go to the doctor’s office.
Ed Eilert added to his point that Johnson County has a program called KC Ride Freedom for senior citizens who can ride public transportation for free. To use the service, senior citizens must call two, or preferably seven, days ahead of time to get a reservation, for medical and grocery store visits.
What is the most important issue facing Johnson County?
Ron Shaffer: He said the budget is the most important issue: “How to provide the services that our citizens request, demand and need with the income that is available.” He said everything that has been discussed so far at the forum is affected by the budget. “There’s a lot of wishes, a lot of things, I’d like to have in my home, but I can’t afford it, and I’m sure you think likewise,” he said.
Becky Fast: She said many issues are important, but she thinks increased population density and stormwater issues are top priority for her. She said climate change and increased runoff, as well as flooding issues, will continue to be an issue as more people tear down and build larger-density several-story apartment complexes, and “how do we manage that growth and that development,” Fast said, adding that the county figure out how to protect green space in undeveloped and unincorporated areas.
Ed Eilert: He said public safety is always a top priority for him — drugs, jails or anything else that fall under the umbrella of public safety. He also prioritizes human services such as libraries and parks. Finally, he focuses on budgets and tax levies.
Trinette Waldrup: She said she would sum up Johnson County’s issues in one word: change. “That encompasses everything: Change in population density, change in the economy, change in taxes, property appraisals. All of that is encompassed under change,” she said. “In order to pursue those changes, a leader needs to be innovative, adaptive, flexible and be able to work in a team environment.” She said she has those skills to meet Johnson County’s changes.