Community center vote fallout, stormwater infrastructure and affordable housing: Shawnee mayoral candidates talk issues at Shawnee Mission Post forum

Shawnee mayoral primary candidates talk about the issues facing the city in a forum hosted by the Shawnee Mission Post.

Our candidate forum recaps begin with the Shawnee mayoral primary election race. Candidates are incumbent Mayor Michelle Distler, city councilwoman Stephanie Meyer, challenger Ajay Sood and former city councilwoman Dawn Tubbesing. The forum took place Tuesday, July 9 at the Shawnee Mission Northwest Library in Shawnee.

Here’s the list of questions and the mayoral candidates’ responses:

The city put a lot of time and energy and resources into bringing the community center proposal before residents in a vote in May. Shawnee spent a total of about $350,000 in consultants’ fees for feasibility studies and the design and the costs for the mail-in election. And then voters rejected it by a wide margin, 72-28. What do you make of the results from that election, and what steps should the city be taking in the aftermath of the vote?

Ajay Sood

Ajay Sood: He thinks the city needs to focus on long-term goals and direct attention toward the city’s aging population instead of on the community center. He also thinks the city has enough funds, but they only need to be put in the right place. “That is I think where the problem is, that we do not set aside some funds, we don’t plan for the long term. We just wasted $350,000 into this, trying the strategic planning.” He also thinks getting more community feedback is important.

Dawn Tubbesing: She thinks the community center vote failed because of a lack of “communication, vision and shared knowledge about what was actually being discussed.” She wants to ask why the community center failed but also look to the future of the city. “As a community, what we need to do is not worry about whether or not a community center failed, but we need to look at what does our community want and how are we going to actually start over working together?”

Michelle Distler: She said she’s excited for creating a strategic plan for the city to identify needs and wants of Shawnee for the future. She believes the city did a “phenomenal” job of communicating about the proposed community center, including that it would be funded by a property tax increase. She said she was surprised to learn even supporters of the proposed community center vote told her they didn’t like how it was being financed. She hopes “something comes of it” to where a community center in the future would be more of a private investment instead of a debt-financed one. “These conversations are happening, and I think the conversations need to continue to happen during the strategic planning of what is [it] that we want?”

Stephanie Meyer: As a supporter of the proposed community center, she said residents in her ward, Ward 3, consistently told her they wanted a community center, but she believes there was also a disconnect somewhere in communications leading up to the election. She hopes the city will continue having conversations about big ideas for Shawnee’s future, not just for a community center, because she thinks there’s still an interest in having that facility. “Parks and rec can be a huge driver in why folks want to come here, and that leads to business, and that leads to broadening the tax base, which ultimately lowers our property taxes. I really think it’s a win win and part of a broader conversation we need to be having about who we want to be.”

The city is facing tens of millions of dollars in needed stormwater repairs in the coming decade, with estimates of total cost up to $140 million. This issue has been a major point of contention in this year’s budget planning. How should the city approach funding and scheduling those repairs?

Dawn Tubbesing

Dawn Tubbesing: She believes the city should add more funding and focus on stormwater utilities and infrastructure. She said that while on the council, she voted to split the Deffenbaugh impact fee between business development and road infrastructure. She thinks that because properties have seen an increase in valuation, the city should consider using a portion of the increased valuation and allocating it to infrastructure and stormwater improvements. She also didn’t want to promise anything, because the city hasn’t finished collecting data on the condition of its pipe system. “I do not support the kind of offerings that were made at the last council meeting to completely obliviate all of our parks department financing.”

Michelle Distler: She said the city’s strategic plan will dictate how Shawnee tackles its aging stormwater infrastructure. She added that she’s excited to engage the public in the process of coming up with a vision for the city’s future. She said public safety and public works are “very important parts” of economic development for Shawnee, to ensure people want to live and work here. “We have to take care of our infrastructure. That’s just as an important part of economic development as incentives are, as everything else is.” She cited recent stormwater pipe failures as costly (about $1 million in damages), and said they are “top priority and we have to take care of it.”

Stephanie Meyer: She said she thinks the stormwater issues are important, and she thinks the city is taking steps to address them. She believes that leading up to the proposed community center vote, there was some information that was “not easily understood or perhaps misinformation” about the state of the repairs of stormwater pipes and the allocation of funding for those projects. That being said, she noted the council doubled the city’s stormwater utility fee to bring in more funds for stormwater work, and the council also agreed to allocate a small percentage of city reserves and bond capability (about $6 million) to bridge the gap and fully fund the city’s pipes that are in the worst condition. She said economic development will help spread out the tax base and fund stormwater projects.

Ajay Sood: He said economic development is important for Shawnee. He said stormwater issues have been a “crisis” because of nature — “nothing you can do because it’s a natural calamity.” He said planning ahead and budgeting for stormwater projects is important. He said “the money is there,” but the city needs to redirect those funds toward these projects. He noted that stormwater issues are happening in cities nationwide. He also suggested using solar panels to save money. He noted that “God will take care of us” and “all the crises will go away” if the city focuses on making money and saving money.

As mayor, what’s one thing you want to be able to say about Shawnee four years from being sworn in to the mayoral seat that you can’t say about the city today?

Mayor Michelle Distler

Michelle Distler: In the past four years, she said she’s brought city hall to Shawnee neighborhoods and opened up the channels of communication. She cited new roles in city and economic development council leadership that have allowed “the dust to settle,” such as new city manager. She also listed areas of growth in Shawnee, including four times the number of businesses and jobs since 2016. “We are growing. We’re making progress. Nothing happens overnight.” She mentioned that Monticello Library and Lenexa City Center took years of planning. She said she’s worried about the strategic plan because the city will get progress going, but it could lose momentum and synergy and excitement.

Stephanie Meyer: She hopes that after four years in office, she could say that Shawnee is the easiest place to do business in the Kansas City metro area. She thinks the city does not have a good reputation in the business world and perhaps the city is not as aggressive or dogged about attracting businesses. “I think we have a lot of work to do to build confidence in our regional community. We need to be a player at the regional table.”

Ajay Sood: He said he plans to bring more transportation to the area and provide $2 rides for the aging population. He also plans to connect people more on social media, especially Facebook. He hopes to invest more in renewable resources, especially solar and wind energy. “We need to get on the level so we can rise above and meet with all the demands of the life we are going to have in the next four to five years.”

Dawn Tubbesing: Four years from now, she wants to be able to say that developers, business leaders and job creators “know the name of our mayor” and know that the city is trying to attract businesses here. She wants to ensure the city maintains a small town feel while living up to its city size as the third largest city in Johnson County. “I want to make sure that we have Shawnee being talked about as a great place to do business, an easy place to do business and a place where business is wanted.” She hopes the city also lowers taxes for its residents.

If elected, what steps would you take to maintain communication with residents, and to increase citizen involvement in the city’s consideration of issues before the council? How would you keep yourself plugged in so you know what issues are important your constituents?

Councilwoman Stephanie Meyer

Stephanie Meyer: She said communication is very important and although she believes the mayor has done a lot to open up the lines of communication, she hopes to do more. She also wants to hear more from folks that are happy with the city, not just from the small group of critics. “I want everyone to be involved in that, and I want everyone to be as engaged.”

Ajay Sood: He thinks the city is lacking communication and connection with residents. He thinks the city should be livestreamed on Facebook. He thinks he can make it possible to open up lines of communication by having more visibility in areas that have more foot traffic, like at Walmart.

Dawn Tubbesing: She thinks communication has been “much better” in recent years between the city and residents, and she is also “impressed” with the mayor’s efforts to increase communication. She would like to expand those lines of communication so it’s not just on Third Thursdays but at different times throughout the week. She would also rather use that time to hear from residents on what they want for the city, and not just use those interaction times to educate them on city processes. She noted that city leaders need to provide more information about big projects like the Nieman Now construction.

Michelle Distler: She cited her many areas of involvement where she is engaged with the public as mayor, including at quarterly question-and-answer sessions, with local organizations, at chamber of commerce events and other city events. She also has other civic involvement by issuing the “Good Neighbor” award and other efforts that recognize the volunteerism in the community. She noted that she has opened up the lines of communication by allowing more public input at council meetings and inviting the general public to the chamber-sponsored “State of the City” addresses. She has also volunteered for events and other local groups.

What’s your view on the use of tax incentives like TIF and CID to attract economic development? When, if ever, is it advisable to commit public money to a private real estate project?

Ajay Sood: He thinks tax increment financing is a good program but it can be abused, especially by a housing developer. He thinks the developers who use TIF should have to be more engaged with the community. Because these projects can get delayed, they waste taxpayer dollars, he noted. He wants to see developers invest more in the community as well.

Dawn Tubbesing: She thinks the city should not be in the incentive business. Instead, she thinks the city should be in the investing business. She said she knows what kind of public-private partnership is needed to move projects forward. “We should make sure that businesses that we partner with are special projects, businesses that we don’t otherwise get, things that make these projects better assets for our community, or things where we wouldn’t have them at all.” She’d like to see TIF-funded projects actually help the community, especially if they are on land that is difficult to develop.

Michelle Distler: She said tax incentives are sometimes necessary but are a small part of economic development. She said Shawnee needs to be easy to do business with. She keeps hearing at each new business’s ribbon-cutting, she learns that the city is easy to do business with. But she hopes to keep finding better ways for the city to work with new developments and businesses.

Stephanie Meyer: She said tax incentives are a part of “playing the game” of economic development, but not the only part. She said providing stability for businesses is a huge role the city must play. She said the city needs to be more engaged in new economic development opportunities and take more of a lead in attracting new businesses.

Many of the new single-family residential proposals the city receives are for homes costing $400,000 and up. Should Shawnee be pursuing more affordable options in hopes of attracting first-time homeowners and retaining empty-nesters who want to downsize?

Dawn Tubbesing: She thinks Shawnee should be engaging in “every conversation possible” with housing developers. However, she added that the market, and not Shawnee, determines what kind of home someone will build. “I can all day long tell you that we should only talk to single-family for sale only townhomes to go in each individual space, but if nobody’s gonna buy them, then there’s nothing we can do about it.” She thinks the city needs to partner with housing developers. If the city wants to diversify its housing then the city needs to “make some exceptions” in its zoning regulations, setbacks and other rules for residential developments.

Michelle Distler: She said Shawnee has a lot of affordable housing, but she also thinks the city needs to be “a community for everyone.” She said the city is increasing senior housing, but even more people are wanting to downsize as well. She also heard more people are wanting ranch-style and cottage-style homes as well. Others want higher-quality apartments and townhomes, people that want to rent instead of own their homes. “It’s not just about the affordable housing. We’ve got to figure out a way on how we can be a community for everyone.”

Stephanie Meyer: She thinks affordable housing is one of the most pressing issues in Shawnee and the whole metro area. She recalls her family needing to downsize their housing when she lost her father at age 4. Because she was a “free lunch” student, she hopes to provide better opportunities for children to achieve their goals in a way that their families can still live in Johnson County. “It’s looking at multi-family, it’s looking at the entire gamut. But it’s also certainty.” She thinks the city needs to update its comprehensive plan, which it hasn’t done since 1987. That plan would create certainty and a plan in place for multi-family housing and other future residential developments.

Ajay Sood: He said he’s been in the rental property business for 20 years. He thinks affordable housing should be a requirement. He suggested creating single-family homes with only one or two bedrooms, and other housing options that could be affordable, new and good quality. He thinks this would attract empty-nesters wanting to downsize as well as young families. “We need to start thinking like this.”