Cities that have built big all-purpose community centers – and there are quite a few in Johnson County – are quick to extol their value. They promote exercise and good health and provide meeting spaces. Families considering a move want them. And just about every other city, by now, has them.
What’s not to love, right?
But in Merriam and Shawnee, resistance has taken root among pockets of citizens. A group of Merriam residents has fought tooth and nail to stop a design that they say will diminish enjoyment of the swimming pool. Even though construction on that project has already started, they have not conceded defeat.
In Shawnee, opponents hope to nip off construction before it gets started by defeating it at the polls in May. The proposed center is a want, not a need, they say, and shouldn’t be paid for by the entire populace.
Shawnee and Merriam are actually latecomers to a building trend that has been taking place all across Johnson County and the metro area. Where cities once would have had a small building with a meeting room, offices and perhaps a basketball court and dubbed it a “community center,” now the term means something completely different.
Modern community centers, as built in Lenexa, Olathe, Overland Park and Mission, now have indoor and possibly outdoor aquatics features, multiple meeting rooms and play rooms, fitness equipment, perhaps an indoor track and a fireplace as well.
And they have been enthusiastically embraced by residents, according to those cities.
But in Merriam and Shawnee, vocal groups have formed expressing dissatisfaction either with the whole idea of taxes paying for a community center, as in Shawnee, or with the public process on its design, as in Merriam. What follows is a look at each project.
‘Merriam concerned citizens’ push back on design, process for center already under construction
There have been months of design back-and-forths since Merriam citizens voted in September 2017 to use a quarter-percent sales tax to build a $30 million center.
Since the vote, construction has started, the sales tax has already taken effect and the old, 50-meter pool is now, “a big old muddy hole in the ground,” as Mayor Ken Sissom puts it. Even so, Merriam opponents have not given up and are still deciding what options they have left to take.
It all boils down to the pool.
The new center is designed to have both indoor and outdoor pools. The problem is the outdoor pool is considerably smaller than what they had before.
This concerned some residents enough that they formed “Merriam Concerned Citizens,” put up a Facebook page and web site and began questioning the transparency of the city’s process. The 67.5 percent of voters who approved the measure likely assumed the pool would be better than or at least equal in size to what the city had before, according to the website.
But even after an adjustment that made the outdoor pool bigger, it’s still only 40 percent of the former pool size, the website said. It would end up being the smallest outdoor municipal pool in the county.
Had residents known that, they might have voted differently, the Concerned Citizens said. They also objected to how the city handled other aspects of the design and budget.
The group voiced their concerns to the city council. Then they took the unusual step of using a petition initiative to get the change they wanted.
Kansas law allows residents to initiate new or changed city ordinances via petition – an action that has not often been used in Johnson County.
The proposed ordinance must have a substantial number of signatures from eligible voters. The number of signatures depends on the size of the city. Bigger cities need 25 percent of the number of voters in the most recent regular city election, and smaller ones 40 percent.
If enough signatures are validated by the county elections office and the petitions meet all of the numerous other legal requirements in how they’re submitted, the city must pass the ordinance within 20 days. If that doesn’t happen, the city has to have a special election within 90 days to vote on the proposal.
Merriam Concerned Citizens submitted three petitions to the election office. One asked that the old aquatics center be retained or another equivalent one be built. A second would require voter approval for sale of land from Vavra Park (where the center will be located). A third would require voter approval for tax increment financing districts spending $1 million or more, which would likely mean every TIF district.
The group needed 664 verified signatures per petition, according to the county election commission. Although the forms showed more than 800 signatures, the office was only able to verify 401 for the aquatics question, 387 for the park land sale question and 505 on the TIF district. But there were many questions about the technicalities of how the forms were submitted — enough that the matter is not completely settled.
The citizen group has gone quiet in the meantime. Two of its leaders, Dan Leap and Suzanne Downey, declined to talk about the issue with the Post, saying they’re awaiting word from their lawyer on what the next step will be.
Mayor Sissom said the city is not required to act on the petitions anyway because they are administrative in nature and exempted from the state law.
The community center has been on the radar since at least 2014, he said, because of drainage and deterioration problems with the Irene French Community Center near Turkey Creek, and because of the age of the former aquatics center. The city worked for four years on the design and ballot issue, he said. “These people came up in the last eight to nine months wanting to change and it’s just too late to change.”
The old pool was underused and expensive to staff, he said. “Nobody’s building pools like that in cities the size of Merriam. We should be building neighborhood pools, not Olympic competition pools. So that was never going to be part of the deal.” The new facility will have more pool space than the old one, if indoor and outdoor pools are combined, and it will be useable year round, he added.
“I believe the voters believe that this is the right thing to do,” Sissom said. “We’ve already taken this to a public vote and they’ve given permission to spend the money to build it. To do anything different would be to tell those people, you know what? Whatever you voted on, we’re not going to pay any attention to it. We’re just going to do what these people over here want us to do.”
Questions about finances, long-term sustainability fuel opposition from some in Shawnee
Shawnee is not as far along with its community center proposal as Merriam. Voters will decide on a May mail-in ballot whether to issue $38 million in general obligation bonds to build a community center in the western part of town at West 61st Street and Woodland Drive.
A rendering of the proposed community center in Shawnee. Residents will vote on a possible property tax hike to pay for the project this spring. Like other centers, it would have an indoor pool and fitness equipment, play rooms, a gym and walking track.
The city has actually been considering a community center for 15 years, and has done extensive polling on its support, say city leaders. Residents have been leaning more and more positive about it on citizen surveys over the years. “Basically, it’s what our residents asked for,” said Deputy Parks and Recreation Director Tonya Lecuru.
However the city has been getting push-back from some who are vocal in their opposition. Ray Erlichman, known for his blog “Shawnee Ray’s Ramblings,” has taken to calling it the “Taj Mahal on Woodland.”
The Shawnee vote will not be about a dedicated sales tax, as Merriam’s was. Ballot language approved last month notes that “all or a portion of the debt service on such bonds” as issued to pay for a community center would be “paid through an increase in the property tax levy.”
That bond, which will add up to $54 million including interest, by Erlichman’s estimation, will be paid from property tax. No specific property tax is specified for the vote, but the city figures it will take 2.919 mills based on today’s valuations.
Shawnee puts a calculator on its website for folks who want to figure out how much it will cost them. A homeowner in the average $263,130 home would pay a little over $88 a year more for the community center, according to that calculator.
That’s to get the building. Operating expenses – for staff, cleaning, etc. – would be paid by membership fees, and that’s another sticking point for opponents. Erlichman has pointed out that the city estimates the center would be running in the red for years because of operating fee shortfall.
But city staffers say the estimates online that show a deficit in operating fees of more than $250,000 five years out are very conservative, and that the breakeven point should come before then.
In fact, it’s typical for cities to supplement operating expenses while the membership is getting established. Olathe, Overland Park and Lenexa did so, and they all report that their membership fees now cover 100 percent of operations. Lenexa’s Rec Center has only been open for about a year and a half.
In Mission, city staff report various fees end up covering between 75 and 90 percent of operating costs for the Sylvester Powell Jr. Community Center in a given year.
A community center wouldn’t be used by everyone in Shawnee, but the whole city, including businesses, will pay property taxes to support it, and that money might be better used on more critical needs, according to opponents. It’s an item that will go on forever in property taxes, which will not sunset in 10 years the way a dedicated sales tax would.
“In summary, there are just too many questions about this particular Community Center proposal. It’s simply not fiscally responsible, it will only be a benefit to certain people, and requires a tax increase,” Erlichman said in an email.
The city chose property tax partly to save residents from having the highest sales tax rate in the county, said Deputy City Manager Stephen Powell. About $2.75 million a year is needed for 20 years to pay off the bond. That would require a quarter-cent sales tax increase in a city whose current rate is 9.6 percent. And it would have to be re-voted after 10 years. Also, Powell said, the sales tax is generally a less reliable source or revenue than property tax.
So far there are no websites or social media sites for the Shawnee opposition group, but city leaders have heard the opposition, nonetheless.
“I think there’s certainly a vocal portion of people who are against it and quite honestly we understand that. From the city’s standpoint, we’re just here to educate people to this process so they can make the best decision for their families,” said Julie Breithaupt, city communications manager.
“We just want everybody to vote when the ballot comes out in May and then we’ll have direction moving forward.”