They’re sitting quietly amongst other spectators and staffers in the county commission hearing room, listening and taking notes as money is allocated to human service funds and transit contracts.
In just a few weeks, Becky Fast and Janeé Hanzlick will be in the same hearing room, looking out from the dais as newly elected county commissioners.
Both women defeated incumbents in the November election. Both have backgrounds in social services. And both say they’d like to see the county focus more sharply on the needs of the vulnerable – mental health clients, the elderly and those who are being pinched by high housing prices.
“In order for Johnson County to continue to be a quality place to live we have to make sure everyone is moving forward, including the most vulnerable,” Hanzlick said. “We have issues that mean that not everyone is enjoying the same quality of life. How do we make sure to bring them along?”
With the swearing-in ceremony Jan. 14, Hanzlick will replace Commissioner Jason Osterhaus, representing much of Overland Park. Fast will replace Commissioner Ron Shaffer representing the northeastern corner of the county.
Both say they want to continue to keep Johnson County on track as a premier place to live. But they are less focused on the many building projects – a new courthouse, new libraries and wastewater treatment plant – that have occupied the commission the past few years.
Rather, they listed safety net issues and planning for the county’s demographic changes as their top priorities.
“I joke that this isn’t your grandparents’ Johnson County,” said Fast, saying that the county is aging and becoming more racially and culturally diverse. “In 20 years the number of seniors is doubling. It’s going to be a quarter of our population,” she said.
“We really need a visioning strategic planning process again, because in (the past) 10 years the demand for these services has totally changed,” she said. “Surveys say people want the county to pick up some of the gap.”
Backgrounds in social services inform priorities
Hanzlick and Fast know the social service world. Hanzlick served as CEO of Safehome and Fast directed public policy research on Medicaid and aging services at the University of Kansas before going to work in constituent services for former U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore. She was until a few days ago a Roeland Park City Council member.
Mental health topped the list for both commissioners-elect. Hanzlick and Fast said they got an earful from people of all income levels while campaigning door-to-door about the lack of treatment options and bed space for the mentally ill. In one instance, Hanzlick said, a family was paying $18,000 a month to send their daughter for out-of-state treatment because no beds were available here.
County mental health center director Tim DeWeese told her that the county can only serve about half the people that need help, she said.
“We can do better than that. We have the resources, the knowledge and the people. I think we can come together and find better solutions,” Hanzlick said, adding that the county, school districts and other agencies need to work together to find more options that are affordable.
Some problems lie with the state of Kansas and its cutbacks to services, Fast said. But local governments trying to take up the slack are sometimes hard pressed for lack of funds. The county’s northeastern cities, with their smaller tax bases, have a harder time paying for a co-responder to help with mental issues on police calls than the larger cities, and not all schools have PTAs that can afford to pay for a school social worker. The county should have a larger role, she said.
Housing affordability was also high on the list for Fast and Hanzlick. “It’s for all price points anymore,” not just low-income, said Fast. Much of the new development is for luxury apartments, leaving middle class and lower income residents with few choices, they said.
Although cities have most of the say over what gets developed, both said there are still things the county can do, such as grants and incentives for rehabbing and building more affordable homes and apartments. Hanzlick and Fast both mentioned a housing trust fund in Lawrence that pays for acquisition, rehab and development of affordable housing as an example of an innovative response.
Property tax relief for seniors
In addition, Hanzlick said, the county might consider property tax relief in some form for seniors worried about being squeezed out by higher property taxes.
Indeed, property valuations have been a sore point for many in Johnson County, Fast said. “We’re getting the highest appraisals in the northeast. Some are up over 20 percent,” she said.
Blowback from voters was so intense last year that County Appraiser Paul Welcome came close to losing his job over it. But neither Hanzlick nor Fast was ready to get rid of Welcome, who has three more years before his term is up. Fast suggested the feedback process to the appraiser’s office needs to be improved.
Both also mentioned protecting the environment as a priority. Hanzlick said that the county is already doing a lot, and hopes to work with the Mid-America Regional Council on sustainability issues. Fast said she’d like to see an educational effort by the county on composting food waste.
Hanzlick added that she’d also like to make sure the county has secure elections and that election processes are trustworthy and transparent.
Ideological balance of commission to shift
When Fast and Hanzlick are sworn in, the ideological balance of the commission may shift. Hanzlick, who referenced the ouster of former County Manager Hannes Zacharias during her campaign, replaces Osterhaus, whose voting tended to be more conservative. Osterhaus was one of the commissioners who voted not to retain Zacharias. He also effectively blocked the appointment of Allen Greiner to public health officer in 2014. Greiner was opposed by anti-abortion interests.
There may be another source of friction on the future commission. Hanzlick and Fast both received campaign donations from county Democratic groups, a fact that incensed Commissioner Mike Brown enough that he has pledged to “doggedly pursue” a proposal to make future elections partisan.
Neither of the newcomers supports that idea, though Fast said she wouldn’t object to putting it up for a general referendum.
“Government on the local level doesn’t really fit the Republican or Democratic platform that easily,” Fast said. “There’s not a Republican or Democratic pothole.”