Archive for Thursday, February 20, 2003

County Commission endorses SFAAP bill

February 20, 2003

A majority of Johnson County commissioners endorsed a bill last Thursday that would provide possible incentives and oversight for future development at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

The bill's key elements, however, are optional and may never be enacted even should it win approval in Topeka. The bill states the county "may" create a Sunflower redevelopment authority oversight board.

Two state legislators, Reps. Rob Boyer and John Ballou, proposed legislation that would create such an authority. Their proposal would have the redevelopment authority take title to Sunflower and sell off parts of the plant to pay for its cleanup.

Despite the two legislators' proposal, six of seven commissioners said they liked the flexibility the word may offered.

Even as the Commission discussed the proposed legislation before Kessinger/Hunter and Co. attorney John Petersen's presentation at the work session, Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh and Commissioner Doug Wood expressed support for the concept of transferring Sunflower to a single developer should one be willing to adhere to the county's land-use plan and not ask for tax breaks to cleanup Sunflower.

Under Surbaugh and Wood's questioning, County Counselor Don Jarrett said a transfer to such a private developer would prevent the piecemeal disposal of Sunflower property, which could lead to a checkerboard cleanup pattern and the loss of zoning authority.

Commissioners agreed the bill they were proposing gave the county the most options. They said the "may" clause would allow the county to create such a board to provide a layer of oversight on development or -- should the Kessinger/Hunter plan fail to pan out -- actually take title to Sunflower. It would also allow the option to forego the creation of a redevelopment board if commissioners were comfortable with the Kessinger/Hunter redevelop plan.

A provision in the bill that would give the county the authority to offer incentives in the way of rebates on property taxes for improvements to the property -- so-called TIF bonds -- would also be optional, Jarrett told the Commission. (Legislation passed three years ago to pave the way for Oz Entertainment Co. redevelopment of Sunflower offered similar tax breaks on sales taxes owed. Those were left out of the county's bill because of a move in the Legislature that would make those available statewide).

The Commission's endorsement of the bill wasn't unanimous. Commissioner John Toplikar, who represents De Soto, said he supported the legislation proposed by Ballou because of its support from Boyer and De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson. He also predicted the county's bill would face difficulties in the Kansas House, where Ballou is speaker pro tem.

"He's the man with the gavel," Toplikar said. "He's the elected leader in the House. I don't think it's going to be very fruitful to disagree with the second man in charge in the House."

Changes could be made to the county's proposal before it makes it to the House. Boyer said Tuesday Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, will likely change the bill before it passes out of the Senate Commerce Committee she heads.

Among her concerns, Brownlee said, was the value of Sunflower. An estimate of the property's worth will be part of her review of the legislation, she said.

For his part, Ballou said Sunflower is worth far more than the cost of cleaning it up, estimated to be from $45 million to $55 million.

"Conservatively, that land is worth $600 million," Ballou said. "Why should that much land go to any one developer? Why shouldn't it go to a redevelopment authority that would provide revenue to the federal government, the state, county and the city?

"Where do the taxpayers win in this deal?"

With that much profit to be made from future land sales, Ballou questioned the need for added tax incentives that would only increase the price of land Kessinger/Hunter sold to secondary investors.

Kessinger/Hunter wasn't asking for the tax rebates the bill would provide and repeated they would not be needed to accomplish the transfer or cleanup of Sunflower, Petersen told the Commission. But, he added the incentives would be a useful tool in attracting future development to the plant.

Should Sunflower be transferred to Kessinger/Hunter, the company would be eligible for tax deductions for donating property to the Johnson County Park District, K-State Extension, De Soto USD 232 and the city of De Soto. Those tax advantages could disappear should title of the property be transferred to a redevelopment authority, which Ballou's bill would mandate.

After the work session, Petersen said transferring Sunflower to a redevelopment authority could threaten Kessinger/Hunter's proposal. He also questioned whether Ballou's proposed redevelopment authority could receive title to Sunflower under federal early transfer laws.

"It depends on its mandated authority," he said. "Ownership causes a problem because you have to have a fully developed plan for cleanup. The question left unanswered, is where is the funding coming from?"

Another major difference between Ballou's proposed legislation and the county's bill was the membership of the redevelopment authority. Ballou's bill would include two members from De Soto and one each from Olathe, Gardner, Eudora, the state and the county. The county's bill would have the County Commission appoint all seven members but states "at least three" should be from local municipalities, townships or jurisdictions.

At the work session, Anderson presented the Commission a letter asking the city be specifically included on a future redevelopment authority.

"De Soto's history for the last 50 years has been tied with the plant," the De Soto mayor wrote. "Since we are the only Johnson County city that directly borders the plant, it is practical to ensure the city will be represented directly in the decision-making process. We need a guaranteed membership contingent (on selection) first by our City Council and then approved by the commissioners."

Surbaugh said De Soto's concerns were a non-issue. She would use her appointment to ensure De Soto's representation should other commissioners overlook the community, she vowed.

"I don't think anyone doubts De Soto has an interest here," she said. "But once you start specifying one you have a hard time not specifying the next, next and next."

The county's plan would make a redevelopment authority more accountable, she said, because the terms of its members would be the same as the county commissioners who appointed them.

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