Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for city council and mayor in Shawnee.
Today, we begin publishing the candidates’ responses. The first question was as follows:
What’s the biggest challenge facing the city of Shawnee today, and what should city government be doing about it?
Michelle Distler (incumbent)
For a city as dynamic as Shawnee, that answer can shift from month to month. It’s one of the reasons I work hard to remain nimble to evolving needs as we grow. One of our biggest ongoing challenge is our aging infrastructure and the need to continue meeting the needs of our growth and its impact on this infrastructure. We need to address adding curbs, gutters, and sidewalks to the 57 lane miles in the city that do not currently have them. But that comes at a cost of $154 million. This price tag is due to the rebuilding of these existing streets to provide the necessary slopes and stormwater infrastructure needed to accommodate the piping and inlets. This item is a priority to our residents and needs to be addressed. The challenge lies in the fact that this cost is more than our annual budget for the operations of the entire city.
Diversifying our tax base. Currently, only about 24% of the city’s revenue comes from commercial taxes, putting much of the cost of government on the shoulders of our residents. This is an unsustainable model and will be further exacerbated as our vast infrastructure continues to age. As mayor, I would work to bring additional businesses to our city to better balance this responsibility, while also providing a more vibrant, attractive place to live, work, and play with more high-quality restaurant, retail, and employment opportunities.
There are several steps we can take to address this:
- 1. Continue to assess our internal processes. We’ve made progress over the last few years within our planning and development department, but there is more work to be done to continue to change the reputation we’ve gained of not being business and development friendly.
- 2. Update our plan. The city’s comprehensive plan – the document that helps to guide development in Shawnee – has not been significantly updated since 1987. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage, creates challenges when considering development, and causes uncertainty for our residents. Until we know where we want to go and develop a modernized and responsive plan to get there, we can never truly make progress.
- 3. Tell our story. Shawnee has largely not participated in the regional conversation on economic development, and that means as potential employers are looking at the metro, we’re not on their minds. We must change that and give Shawnee a seat at the regional table – by playing an active role, and not being afraid to compete. We’ve got a great story to tell, and we should be telling it to folks outside of our city limits.
- 4. Leverage our strengths. I believe there are three areas of Shawnee that present that most opportunity – our downtown, the youth sports corridor along Johnson Drive, and our growing industrial region near K-7. We should be actively promoting these areas – and the mayor should be playing a meaningful part in those conversations, particularly along Nieman, which has struggled with the lengthy construction, and where we’ve got one of the metro’s only federal opportunity zones.
- 5. Reinvest. As we bring in new and expand existing businesses, we should look at reinvesting a portion of that growth towards added funds to address our aging infrastructure needs. Providing for our core services is a critical component of business attraction and retention.
City Council Ward 1
Jim Neighbor (incumbent)
Expand the commercial tax base to reduce the pressure on the residential property tax base to fund city services. Expand the Kansas Neighborhood Redevelopment Act to northeast Shawnee to attract new residents to promote the regreening and redevelopment of the area. All this comes under the heading of aggressive economic development, that brings in new business, and helps to promote and expand existing businesses, that creates jobs for citizens who need affordable housing, for millennials, families, and downsizing seniors, that creates demand for shopping opportunities, restaurants, and amenities that the Shawnee citizens want. Lastly, continue to develop sustainable and long term solutions to address our aging infrastructure. Example, we will be going to LED street lights in the near future, at a savings in excess of $200,000/year in power costs alone.
- Challenge: The fact we have experienced only a fraction of residential growth when compared to the exponential increase of our budget during that same time. Why?
- Challenge: The state of our infrastructure and the price tag attached to bring it where it should be.
- Opportunity: Taking corrective action in being more efficient with our budget. Be intentional and deliberate about allocating taxpayer resources and maintaining effective services
- Opportunity: Public safety and infrastructure are the priorities. The only standard of acceptance is excellence.
City Council Ward 2
We don’t have enough restaurants. I like framing the problem around restaurants because, in order to bring in more restaurants, we need to do several other things well: 1) we need a master plan, which is currently in the works. A master plan will help give guidance and confidence to businesses looking to plant their roots in Shawnee. 2) we need more economic development. Restaurants can’t survive on just the dinner & weekend crowd; they need patrons for weekday lunches too. Bringing in other businesses as part of a larger economic development initiative will help sustain restaurants and help provide the weekday lunch crowd. As we work to revitalize downtown, we also need to look at the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of them do not have sidewalks. I believe that adding sidewalks and making downtown accessible to the neighborhoods surrounding downtown is key to the success those businesses located downtown. 3) We need to address our aging stormwater infrastructure. Several parts of the stormwater system are in critical or near critical condition. When stormwater pipes collapse underneath a road, it can cause damage to the road in the form of a sinkhole. We are going to have a very hard time bringing in more businesses, such as restaurants, if the roads are literally falling apart.
Again, I like answering this question with “restaurants” because it encompasses several other issues that are facing the city. You can hold me accountable for restaurants, because in order to bring in restaurants we need to do a lot of other things well.
Eric Jenkins (incumbent)
My highest priority is the restoration of a solid infrastructure for the city. Current estimates by our Public Works Director are that we will require $140 million over the next ten years and up to $200 million over the next 20 years to repair and replace our aging storm pipes. Pipe collapses are becoming an all-too-regular event in Shawnee — we have had several in the past year. These repairs often cost $1,000,000 or more to remediate.
A visual survey is being conducted by video in all the pipes in the city and the level of disrepair is being identified in levels of 1-5, with level 5 the worst and in imminent danger of collapse and level 4 being very dilapidated. During the last budget cycle I wrote a position/recommendation proposal for this issue and presented it to the city council. I moved to have pipe repairs identified on record as the number one funding priority. I recommended the repairs be consolidated into a programmable process and be a major item, on the city’s capital improvement plan. I recommended that a joint citizen-governing body-city staff task force be comprised to review the last two years budgets and look for opportunities for re-prioritizing of expenditures, potential cost cutting measures and budget reduction ideas.
I would pursue this aggressively again if re-elected, with hopefully some new voices on the council to join me.
City Council Ward 3 (four year term)
From the 2017 citizen survey, economic growth and vitality was the second highest priority after safety. The city of Shawnee must ensure that the master plan we create is comprehensive and has plans for growth that bring in additional businesses as well as keep us safe.
Increased commercial growth not only does improves the quality of life for our citizens, it keeps more money in our city, and adds more tax revenue from businesses to support our infrastructure needs. Economic stability, jobs, entertainment, diversity of businesses will attract more people and businesses. Also, having more business will grow the commercial tax base above the current 26%. This will also help with our stormwater drain repairs as businesses are assessed a fee based on their surface area and residents are assessed a flat fee. So additional commercial growth can also help areas like stormwater and public safety. I think that our commercial base could grow by 10 to 15 percent and we would still maintain our unique Shawnee feel in the city.
Finally, 96% of people rate Shawnee as a good or excellent place to live There is nothing to “fight” — we must keep our great city going in its positive direction through effective leadership, planning and communication.
We have many challenges facing Shawnee, but two stand out to me. First, we need to increase our commercial tax base by luring companies, businesses and restaurants to Shawnee. This starts with great infrastructure and parks which make Shawnee a place where people want to live and work. Additionally, we need to ensure strong support for the newer staff at the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce and fully support their efforts. Finally, I am not opposed to incentives which would help lure companies with high-paying jobs to relocate to Shawnee, or reasonable incentives for developers who are willing to make significant investments in our city. I am not a fan of tax finance districts, which add an unknown tax to citizens.
Second, we need to be proactive in addressing the $100 million storm water drainage pipe issue which has recently been brought to light. My recommendation is to commit $5 million per year over the next 20 years to ensuring that this problem is addressed in a systematic fashion which replaces the most vulnerable pipes each year.
City Council Ward 3 (two year term)
Lisa Larson-Bunnell (incumbent)
Diversification of our tax base. As compared to neighboring cities, Shawnee relies far too much on residential real estate taxes to support infrastructure and city services. We must work to grow our commercial tax base in a responsible way so we can ease the burden borne by our residents.
The biggest issue facing the Shawnee is the current attitude of the Shawnee City Council. Currently, it seems as though the Shawnee City Council is fixated on attempting to outdo surrounding cities, instead of what is best for the citizens of Shawnee. The proposal for the Shawnee Recreation Center is an excellent example. The City bought a piece of land in 2007 for a western Shawnee outdoor pool. Unfortunately, sometime between 2007 and 2019, the council decided against a western pool in favor of a $54 million reaction center that did not fit the needs of the citizens of Shawnee. Similar recreation centers in neighboring cities are all in high-density Areas with over 1,000 apartments, businesses, restaurants, and offices within walking distance. The proposed Shawnee recreational center was planned on the land purchased for the western pool; it is a residential area with little foot traffic.
Additionally, the Shawnee City Council voted to spend $100,000 of taxpayer dollars on a mail-in ballot regarding the recreation center, rather than wait to put it on the November ballot. Placing it on the November ballot would not have cost any additional tax dollars.
City Council Ward 4
In my opinion, the biggest challenge currently facing our city is balancing our aging infrastructure needs while continuing to invest in new development. Taking care of our streets, storm sewers, and utilities as well as fully funding our pubilc safety departments is crucial but we must not be stagnant and strip away funding for the things that make Shawnee an attractive city and give us a high quality of life. Economic development can help diversify our tax base and allow us to pay for these essential needs and services without homeowners shouldering such a high percentage through their residential property taxes.
Attracting new restaurants, shops, and entertainment options balances our tax base and gives us more opportunities to spend our money right here in Shawnee. Marketing Shawnee to prospective companies is aided by being a community that offers their employees the opportunity to live, work, and play in close proximity.
The city should continue to fund critical infrastructure repairs and new public works projects as well as our police and fire departments. We must also invest in our Parks and Recreation Department, city staff, walking and biking trails, and sustainability initiatives as these are things that can have both economic and quality of life impacts. We should work in close partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council to attract the right kind of quality developments by reputable developers.
Striking a balance between funding essential city services and investing in the things that make Shawnee a great place to live will keep us on a positive path forward.
The biggest challenge facing Shawnee today is the storm water crisis. Approximately $140 Million in storm drain pipe repairs are needed in the next ten years. $14 Million is needed for 224 pipes that have already failed or have the potential to fail at any moment. The City Council rejected a series of funding proposals to adjust the budget for this need. Instead, they are simply calling the problem, “a priority.”
Many storm water repair projects are being funded with debt owed by the City. This is not an acceptable, long-term capital improvement strategy. The governing body needs to take immediate, proactive steps to prioritize spending to address this issue.
Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item two:
Voters soundly defeated a proposed property tax increase to pay for a community center. Do you think a major community center like the one that was proposed is still a project the city should be considering? Or is it time to move on? Why?