Voters overwhelmingly rejected tax hike for community center in Shawnee. What did the city learn from the process?

A rendering of the proposed community center. Shawnee voters rejected a tax hike to pay for the project.

One month after Shawnee voters soundly rejected raising property taxes to pay for a proposed $38 million community center, proponents and opponents of the measure are reflecting on what the city learned through the process.

Frustrations have surfaced at council and council committee meetings this month, during which some members of the public and city leaders have accused each other of deceiving the public leading up to the May 21 mail-in ballot election.

Other concerns about funding options for core services, including high infrastructure costs to make stormwater repairs, are at the heart of much of the recent discussion.

At the Shawnee council meeting June 10, Shawnee resident Dave Williams, an active member of the “Vote No” group that organized opposition to the tax hike for the community center, berated the council for what he believed was a “waste of time, heartache and money” on the proposal.

Documents provided to the Shawnee Mission Post through a Kansas Open Records Act request show spending of $362,448.54 on work related to the community center proposal leading up to the May vote. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers:

  • Shawnee paid Perkins + Will $113,871.35 for conducting a feasibility study and $71,500 for providing architectural services. Those amounts are less than what the city had initially set aside: $114,750 for the study, $99,000 for architectural services.
  • Shawnee paid $73,000 to Project Advocates for owner’s representative services — the exact amount it set aside when entering the contract.
  • Travel-related expenses, such as airfare and lodging, for city staff to visit Denver for a facility tour, amounted to $3,601.48. An open house public meeting with USD #232 cost $87.50, and the city paid $149.81 to Panera Bread for committee meeting supplies.
  • One of the biggest chunks of money went toward conducting the mail-in ballot election, a total of $100,238.40.

In an interview after the June 10 council meeting, Councilmember Stephanie Meyer, who was a vocal proponent of the plan, said she believes the upfront costs for the community center were necessary to provide as much information as possible to Shawnee voters leading up to the election.

“In terms of the costs that went into it on the front end, really our motivation from that is we wanted to have the best idea of what the cost would be to the residents before we put it on a ballot,” Meyer said. “We didn’t want a ballot issue where people were going to be voting on something that we hadn’t fully vetted out the cost of what that would be.”

Opposing views on proposal, but no regrets on holding election

Councilmembers Meyer and Eric Jenkins may have stood on opposing sides to the community center initiative, but both said they think the election was worth it.

Councilmember Stephanie Meyer said “There was a lot of community support of moving it towards a ballot, so I wouldn’t say that I ever regret putting anything to the voters.”

“There was a lot of community support of moving it towards a ballot, so I wouldn’t say that I ever regret putting anything to the voters,” Meyer said.

Jenkins said the election “gave the citizens an opportunity to communicate their current frame of mind regarding additional taxes and so on to the city council and city staff.”

“I have a very strong sense that it was a tax too far,” Jenkins said. “People are just really tired of being taxed. They’re concerned with not having the needs addressed while everyone’s wanting to move forward with wants. I think they sent a resounding message.”

At this time, there are no plans for the 26 acres of city property at West 61st Street and Woodland Drive.

Williams, the Shawnee resident who sat as treasurer of the “Vote No” group, said he thinks the city should do a “deep dive or a post mortem” on why 72% of Shawnee voters rejected the community center initiative.

“I would think that some of you on the council should be embarrassed and/or angry over the results from this mail-in ballot and would want to know why it was defeated so badly,” Williams told the council.

Shawnee councilmember Mickey Sandifer

Councilmember Mickey Sandifer countered Williams’ statements, saying the city did not have an organized “Vote Yes” group but that the city was relying on years of data collection before deciding to make plans for a community center.

“This wasn’t something that just came out of the blue,” Sandifer said, adding that the “Vote No” group put out false information. “You want us to come up with the answers to tell you why we lost. We lost because there was an organized group of no people out scaring the hell out of people.”

In an interview afterward, Jenkins said he did not believe the “Vote No” group, which he helped organize, put out any false information. Jenkins said they raised as much as $24,000 in opposition to the community center initiative.

“I saw the city lying by omission, not outright lying, but by omission, leaving a lot of things out,” Jenkins said. “The fact that the citizen group wanted to set the record straight, I think is appropriate.”

Resident concerns for ‘unmet needs’ of infrastructure, public safety

This photo from a feasibility study shows the proposed Shawnee Community Center site as it exists today. With the ballot initiative defeated, the future for the site is uncertain.

At issue for many residents across Shawnee, according to councilmembers going door to door on their election campaigns, is concern for funding “unmet needs” such as infrastructure and public safety, and chalking up the proposed community center as a “want.”

Councilmember Matt Zimmerman at the June 24 council meeting countered the premise that parks and recreation are wants, citing the multiple benefits of parks and recreation for fostering community. Mayor Michelle Distler echoed his sentiments, saying residents often tell her how they enjoy the city’s parks and trails.

Nonetheless, Meyer said she believes city leaders should be doing a better job of communicating with residents that core services such as infrastructure and public safety are being funded.

“Obviously, residents aren’t seeing that, so I think beyond the community center conversation, one that we should be having with our residents is how we communicate with them about what our plan is and work towards making sure they have confidence that really the core services of government are going to be fulfilled,” she said.

Meyer said many of the residents in her ward, Ward 3, showed support for a community center, but she understands if residents are leery of property tax increases, “particularly as the county valuations continue to rise at pretty alarming levels.”

“Maybe this wasn’t the correct programming; maybe this wasn’t the correct time,” Meyer said. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from it, certainly.”