(My comments to Mainstream Coalition’s
“Restore Sanity to Kansas Luncheon” 5/4/2016)
As most of you know, my background includes five years as a Fairway City Councilman, nine years as Mayor of Fairway, and twelve years as a Johnson County Commissioner. I am a Democrat except for one time when I registered as a Republican to stop Finn Bullers (of The Kansas City Star) from reporting on me as the only Democrat on the county commission. When I became mayor, the challenge was stopping the spread of urban blight. When I became a county commissioner, we faced the challenge of transforming county government into a modern professional form of governance under a new charter.
I use the term “we” advisedly, it took everyone doing their part and working together to meet the challenges.
On Friday, the Board of County Commissioners completed its review of county departments and their respective requests for funding in next year’s budget. It is clear from the initial review in two departments that we are reaping the results of cost-cutting without thought to our future.
One of the diverse functions of county government is providing for citizens to exercise their right to vote. Johnson County has long been a leader in technology and advance voting. Yet our voting machines are over 20 years old. We know that an investment of over $12 million will be needed to handle elections in the future. However, because of cost cutting, we have abandoned a program to set aside money for funding this future need. Despite the requests of our Election Commissioner, budgets for the past four years have failed to include funds to prepare us. We are approaching a critical decision point with no adequate funding identified.
Last week, the Board of County Commissioners began work on the budget for 2015. We start this process with a proposed budget from the county manager. Even at this early stage, it is readily apparent that the austerity practices of recent years are jeopardizing our ability to address issues of the future.
We can’t meet current needs through natural growth.
In 2013 the county experienced a refreshing rebound in the real estate market with growth in value of more than 5%. Compared to the growth in the consumer price index (3%) that increase in appraised value looks pretty strong. That growth in value means county government will receive about $8 million more in tax revenue for its general fund.
One of the latest efforts at forcing a downsizing of government without regard for the consequence, is the rejection by state and local governments of federal dollars targeted at programs administered locally. The rejection is usually explained as a form of protest against federal programs or policies that are objectionable to some.
Our own Kansas version of this approach was recently highlighted in a report by KCPT, and it is worth the watch. The specific issue being considered in the Johnson County discussion was a grant offered by the Federal government in the amount of $323,000 aimed at educating children and parents about obesity. The clip includes all the usual suspects: states’ rights, states know best what their residents want and need, and the need to help the federal government reduce its deficit (seriously, that argument is attributed to Ed Eilert about the $323,000 grant in the following piece):
Here are a few facts to consider when evaluating the reasons given in the clip for rejecting federal dollars: