As election on property tax increase nears, advocacy groups spring up on opposing sides of proposed Shawnee community center

A rendering of the proposed community center that Shawnee residents will vote on in May.

Tonight, representatives of the city of Shawnee will give the first of two public presentations regarding the mail-in ballot election to be conducted next month on whether the city will raise property taxes to pay for a proposed $38 million community center.

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Informational meetings on proposed Shawnee community center

City officials will be holding two meetings on the proposed community center and its financing ahead of next month’s mail in ballot election. They will be held:

• 6-7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 10 at the Civic Centre (13817 Johnson Drive)
• 6-7:30 p.m., Monday, April 29 at the Monticello Library (22435 W. 66th Street)

Presentations from city officials will begin at 6:30 p.m. both nights.
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But the city isn’t the only organization trying to educate Shawnee residents about the issue. With just weeks to go before ballots start hitting Shawnee homes, two advocacy groups have sprung up trying to sway voters to their position.

One, Vote Yes Shawnee Rec Center, is making the case that a new center would fill a growing demand identified by the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee, and that its benefits to community health and social interaction are well worth the cost.

The other, Vote No – There’s a Better Way, is arguing that the costs of the center aren’t worth the investment, and that Shawnee has a substantial list of stormwater, road and other infrastructure expenses coming up that will strain the city’s budget.

Here’s a closer look at each campaign.

Vote Yes

Jennifer Riggs has lived in Shawnee the past 12 years and has served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee for about the past half dozen. And she’s been an early and active member in the Vote Yes citizens group’s activities.

To Riggs and her fellow Vote Yes activists, the center is a no-brainer for a city the size of Shawnee, which, with a population of around 65,000, is the third largest in the county. Surveys have identified a fleshed out community center as high on the list of wants for many residents. And without a facility that fills the role at this point, Shawnee residents have been turning to other cities like Lenexa and Overland Park for community center memberships.

The proposed Shawnee community center would include expansive indoor workout facilities as well as aquatics.

“Shawnee dollars are going to neighboring cities that have these amenities right now because we don’t have them here,” she said. “People are looking for these kinds of recreation amenities when they decide where they want to live.”

The Yes group knows that many people will fret about the fact that there will be a membership cost to get access to the center’s full amenities in addition to the property tax increase to fund construction. The property tax increase that will go before voters in the election would increase the city’s rate 2.919 mills. Based on 2018 property value figures, the city has calculated that such an increase would translate to an additional $88.32 a year — or $7.36 a month — for the owner of a home valued at $263,130 (the average among Shawnee homes).

Individual memberships would cost between $360 and $480 per year, or families can buy a family membership that covers up to five people for an annual cost of $840.

“There does have to be some kind of membership cost to it to pay for the operations,” Riggs said. “But if you look at the bigger picture, even if you don’t get a membership and you are paying for the property tax increase, there’s a whole park atmosphere that’s going to be associated with the facility. There’s going to be indoor and outdoor play areas that will be open to the public. There’s a trail that will go around the center and a pond thats going to be stocked with fish.”

Creating a hub for the community to gather for fitness, classes and socializing is well worth the cost of the project, Riggs said.

“There is tons of value for the project, not just in physical wellness for the community, but for enrichment programs and creating spaces for the community to gather,” she said. “Our community doesn’t have anything like this.”

The Vote Yes group has launched a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Vote No

Chris Karner sits on the opposite side of the issue, and has stepped up to serve as a spokesman for the Vote No group.

Karner said he connected with Ray Erlichman, a frequent critic of city spending initiatives, shortly after the council approved the mail-in ballot election on the property tax increase.

“Right off the bat I was interested because I’m tired of my taxes going up,” Karner said. “We’re already looking at sales taxes around 10 percent, Johnson County property taxes are pretty high and valuations just seem to keep going up. We see this as an example of a lack of fiscal responsibility on the city council’s part.”

Karner, who works as a mechanical designer, said the property tax increase for the community center would be inappropriate at a time when the city is facing the potential of tens of millions of dollars in stormwater repair projects in the coming years among other infrastructure and public safety needs.

“Some people seem to look at this like it’s a need, but it’s really a want,” he said. “There are quite a few people in Shawnee who would not consider going to a gym or a community center. And there are already options out there from private businesses. So the city would be looking to take their business away with this.”

Karner said that while an increase of $7 or so per month in property taxes might not sound like a lot to some people, for those who are “pinching pennies,” that money would be significant over the course of 10 or 20 years.

“If you add that all up, that’s money that I could be setting aside to buy a new car,” he said.

As for the group’s catchphrase — “There’s a better way!” — Karner acknowledges that the organization is not, and will not, be proposing any specifics about alternative plans for realizing the project. The “better way” the group is pushing for, he said, is “to be more financially responsible.”

“The gist of our effort is not to promote any specific alternative, except that the better way is for the city council to be more responsible with budgeting,” he said.

The Vote No group has launched a Facebook page and Twitter account as well as a website.