Archive for Thursday, February 13, 2003

County, solons tout differing Sunflower bills

February 13, 2003

The choice of a verb included in legislation designed to provide funds and direction for future development at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant has the Johnson County Commission at odds with two local members of the Kansas House of Representatives.

Reps. Rob Boyer, whose district includes De Soto and Sunflower, and Gardner Rep. John Ballou made public their intention of introducing Sunflower legislation earlier this month. Last Friday, Johnson County commissioners agreed they, too, would seek legislative action on Sunflower.

Surbaugh presented the county's proposed legislation at a Topeka meeting Tuesday that included Ballou, Boyer, Sen. Karin Brownlee, De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson, members of

the K-10 Association and state representatives. Brownlee agreed to introduce the county's bill in the Senate Commerce Committee she chairs.

After the meeting, Surbaugh and Boyer agreed the county's proposal differed from the legislation Ballou advocated in two key areas. Both the county and Ballou's bill have provisions creating a redevelopment authority, and both make tax increment financing available to future Sunflower developers. Tax increment financing allows developers a rebate on property taxes they can use to retire loans borrowed for infrastructure improvements.

The bills differ, however, on the composition of the redevelopment authority and key language authorizing its creation. Ballou wants language stating such a redevelopment authority shall be created, while the county's bill makes its creation an option with the word "may."

Should the Sunflower redevelopment authority Ballou envisions be created, it would take title to Sunflower. That fact and the Army's expected release Thursday of a key document needed for the Sunflower transfer gave substance to the semantic may/shall debate.

In June, then-Gov. Bill Graves appointed a panel headed by then-Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer to review a request from Kessinger/Hunter & Co. of Kansas City, Mo., and its financier, Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C., that the state pursue an early transfer of Sunflower. The two potential developers proposed purchasing Sunflower for the price of its environmental cleanup. They reported they had $45 million set aside for the purchase and wouldn't require public financing to cleanup the property.

Those discussions have produced a document needed before a transfer can occur called a finding of suitability for early transfer. The finding is specific to the Kessinger/Hunter and Cherokee proposal.

The finding would allow Sunflower property to be transferred before all the plant's acres are cleaned of environmental contaminants, an exception to federal law. It would find the property is suitable for the developer's intended use, and the intended use is consistent with protection of human health and the environment.

The release of the finding will start a 30-day public comment period. At the end of that time, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius must sign the document before an early transfer can occur.

Should title of Sunflower be transferred to a redevelopment authority instead of Kessinger/Hunter and Cherokee, the developers would lose the ability to gain tax breaks for donating Sunflower property for public benefit transfers. Among the public benefit transfers various federal agencies have approved are Johnson County's request for 2,000 acres for parkland and the city of De Soto's request for the Sunflower water plant.

Ballou opposes the transfer to Kessinger/Hunter because he believes the plant is worth far more than the cost of its cleanup, now estimated at $55 million. Boyer also has reservations about transferring title to the developers.

"My opinion is Kessinger/Hunter is a reputable company," Boyer said. "I believe they would do a good job. I believe they are a viable option. My question is why are they the only option? Why are we going to reward this property to Kessinger/Hunter that we all know is worth millions more than they are going to pay?"

Boyer said the state should request other proposals and select the best deal.

Surbaugh said she found the Kessinger/Hunter proposal appealing because it offers many of the features lacking in Oz Entertainment Co.'s Sunflower redevelopment plan, which she twice voted against.

"I'm very excited about the Kessinger/Hunter proposal," she said. "I would be very excited if they could get things arranged with the state to move forward because their funding from Cherokee that doesn't require state assistance. They are a very reputable local company."

Should Sebelius sign the finding of suitability for early transfer clearing the way for the Kessinger/Hunter plan, the county would be in Topeka next year asking for the repeal of legislation mandating the creation of a redevelopment authority, Surbaugh said.

From his conversations with the governor's office, Boyer said he is confident Sebelius will not sign the finding without consulting him, Ballou, Brownlee and Sen. Kay O'Connor.

The other key difference between the county and Ballou's bills is the composition of the redevelopment authority. Ballou's legislation would have members from the county, Olathe, Gardner, Eudora, the state, and two representatives from De Soto. The county's proposal would have seven members all appointed by the County Commission.

Surbaugh said the county's proposal would make the redevelopment authority more accountable. If Johnson County residents didn't like the authority's actions, they could vote out the county commissioners who appointed its membership, she said.

The flaw in the county's proposal is that it doesn't guarantee any representative to De Soto, Boyer said.

"How can that board be created and not have a De Soto representative?" he asked. "There is not one community with more vested interest in the future of Sunflower than De Soto."

The County Commission will discuss Sunflower at 11 a.m. Thursday. The meeting will include a presentation by representatives from Kessinger/Hunter, Surbaugh said.

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