Archive for Thursday, March 31, 2005

Taxes, growth concerns in Council race

March 31, 2005

When De Soto voters will be handed ballots Tuesday, the interest may be with a couple of social issues to be decided and not the race of city offices.

This year's campaign for city offices contrasts greatly with that in 2001, when the recent annexation of Sunflower Quarry and Oz Entertainment Co.'s redevelopment proposal for the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant provided controversial wedge issues.

In 2001, Mayor Dave Anderson faced two other candidates to win his seat, and six candidates filed for the Council seats won by Tim Maniez and Emil Urbanek.

Although no one chose to run against Anderson this time around, three candidates --Ted Morse, Barry Thierer and Dave Vigness -- and incumbent Maniez opted to seek the two open Council seats. Voters will be asked to vote for two candidates with the two men with the most votes winning the seats.

Although the election may lack the emotional issues of that of 2001, the candidates agree a number of issues, including taxes, streets and growth management, have emerged.

Tim Maniez

The City Council contest was almost without an incumbent. At the last minute, Maniez decided he still had a taste for city government.

"I've done this twice before -- tell my wife I'm not going to run and in the last minute know I will miss it if I don't," he said. "I guess 16 years weren't enough.

"I stand on my record. I assume I'm known enough that people know where I stand."

His record was that of a fiscal watchdog, Maniez said. He has been mindful of protecting city assets, cautious about taking on debt and with the budget, he said.

The timing of the campaign made it understandable taxes would be on the minds of De Soto voters, Maniez said. Residents started focusing on the election in March soon after they received change in valuation notices from the Johnson County Appraiser's office.

"We just had that 11-percent increase in valuations," he said. "I try to assure them that doesn't mean a tax increase."

More-over, Mainez said he tried to explain the city only accounted for mills in De Soto's property owners overall mill levy.

Although many De Soto property owners were displeased with valuation increases in the annual appraiser's report, it did contain good news that could help them at tax time. The appraiser reported the city's valuation doubled to $9.6 million , attributed mostly to the end of a 10-year tax abatement to Huhtamaki Americas. Making the city's revenue picture even brighter is the state's decision to collect sales taxes at the point of delivery rather than the point of sale, which provided the city at least $100,000 more in tax revenue.

Maniez said he would support taking advantage of that added revenue to roll back the city's mill levy, just as the City Council did last year.

But Maniez said an issue that had been raised nearly as much as taxes in the campaign was that of traffic, both as it related to the incumbent said he would support using some of the increased tax revenue to add street projects to the city's capital improvement plan and step up regular maintenance.

"We want to make maintenance a budget item every year," he said. "Make it a scheduled item to at least do something every year. If you don't do anything, pretty soon the streets just deteriorate."

Projects needed in the near future would be traffic signals at the Commerce Drive/Lexington Avenue and the 83rd Street/Kill Creek Road intersections, he said.

The city is trying to negotiate an arrangement with Lambie-Geer, the developers of the 213-home Arbor Ridge subdivision proposed for southeast of the 83rd Street/Kill Creek Road, that would require the developer to enter into a future benefit district to pay for a traffic light at the intersection. The developers have indicated they would seek additional benefit districts for other city required improvements to 83rd Street.

Earlier this year, Maniez suggested the City Council needed to develop a policy to deal with such benefit district requests. For his part, he said he would support those that made required improvements that benefited the city at large, such as those to nearby streets and intersections. But he said approval should hinge on compliance to stricter city standards.

"I don't have near as much problem with them for projects outside of the development, if it's the only way to get improvements done up front and to city standards," he said. "We're only getting the minimum from developers. Let's take it to the next level."

Finally, Maniez advocated the city start the renovation of the Sunflower Army Ammunition water treatment facility should it receive title to the plant. Sunflower Development LLC spokesmen have said they expect to receive title to the closed ammunition plant early this summer and immediately transfer the water plant to De Soto.

Ted Morse

His first campaign for public office had been a quiet, non-controversial one, De Soto businessman Morse said. The issues that have surfaced -- concern for local taxes and streets -- were those that would always be part of local government, he said.

The quiet campaign could be a response to the progress the City Council has made in the past four years, Morse said. A new sewer plant and new municipal pool are on their way.

The issues of taxes and streets were the staples of local government, he said.

But it was an outlook rather than issue that drew him into the race and distinguished him from the other candidates, Morse said. The City Council could benefit from his retail experience and perspective, he said.

Last year, Morse, his wife, Marge, and son, Jeff, purchased the De Soto Apple Market, which they built and first opened more than 20 years ago.

"I got into this because I think we need somebody who looks at things from a business or retail view," he said. "As a retailer, we hardly ever raise prices. We almost always cut costs.

"That relates to other businesses. I ran a manufacturing company. We looked closely at man-hours and things like that. Some costs have to be looked at really closely."

He had a few specific things that he thought the city could do to save money, Morse said, but preferred to keep them to himself until after the election.

"I have some things in mind that probably need to be done, and -- if elected -- I'd look seriously at," he said.

Despite his preference to cost cutting, Morse said he wouldn't necessarily support cutting taxes, even this year when the city's revenue picture looked rosy.

"I've been one for putting money away for a rainy day," he said. "You don't need to spend all the money just because you have it."

If the city did have extra money this summer, perhaps residents ought to be given a forum on how it should be spent or returned as tax cuts, Morse said.

But as an outsider to the Council, he wasn't yet familiar enough with the city's budget to make those kinds of pronouncements, Morse said.

Morse said the same kind of approach was needed before making a commitment to the Sunflower water plant. He would look at the alternatives developed by the ongoing engineering master plan before making a decision if it was in the city's best interest to renovate the Sunflower water plant, he said.

He shared the concerns of residents that new growth would wash away De Soto's uniqueness and make indistinguishable from other Johnson County cities, Morse said. He wouldn't favor subdivision of greater density than the new development on 87th Street, he said.

"That's about my minimum," he said. "I think development has to be kept under control. We need careful growth -- something that we like.

"You don't have to take every subdivision that comes in just because it comes in. You can pick and choose and take the better ones."

Barry Thierer

Thierer is responsible for one topic much-discussed during this year's campaign. The novice candidate was the first to bring up SBC Communications Inc.'s metro fee, which charges De Soto residents $25 a line for seven-digit, direct dial to other metropolitan area communities.

Recalling former City Councilman Duke Neeland's efforts, Thierer said he would press SBC to end the fee.

Noting that other candidates had picked up on the fee, he hoped city government would take a more aggressive stance in demanding SBC eliminate the fee, Thierer said.

Thierer serves on the De Soto Parks and Recreation Commission and is a retired civil servant with a 40-year career in various state and federal agencies. That experience gave him a working knowledge of how government works and the budgeting process, he said.

Regarding the city budget, he would be cautious even should the anticipated revenue windfall materialize, Thierer said.

"It will probably cost me a few votes, but I think we should be very, very careful when cutting taxes," he said. "Look at the state of Kansas. It had a windfall a couple of years ago it gave away, and now it can't pay for things like education.

"I can't see eating steak today and having to eat rice tomorrow."

Before supporting a tax cut, Barry said he would take a careful look at projects deemed essential and those "nice to do."

"I can't see putting a Band-Aid on something," he said. "The list of things that are essential for need definitely need to be done. The need-to-be-done things should be funded. Push a need-to-be-done item to the bottom, in two or three years it will be essential."

The Council should also make sure contingency funds were adequate before cutting taxes, Thierer said.

One such project could be improvements to the Sunflower water plant, Thierer said. He, too, was optimistic the city would get title to the plant soon. It offered the city the opportunity to keep its user rates low by selling water to nearby cities and water districts.

It should be no surprise that another priority for Thierer would be parks.

"That's one of the high priorities in my mind, but not to bankrupt the city or take away from what we need to do," he said.

The upkeep of Miller Park needed to be maintained at its current high level, Thierer said. Additionally, the parkland the city owns at Lexington Avenue and Commerce Lane should get a name and be provided with some playground equipment and a shelter, he said.

"One of my major concerns is we keep improving our park system so people will want to raise their families here," he said. "If we don't attract those quality young people, we'll die on the vine."

That need also influenced his view on housing development, Thierer said. Although he preferred large lots and opposed the Arbor Ridge subdivision as first proposed, Thierer said he recognized added rooftops were needed to attract more retail opportunities and fill all housing niches in demand. There was a need for single-family housing of the density and quality of the recent 87th Street subdivisions. Additionally, apartments and townhomes were needed to satisfy the needs of young people, single professionals and retirees and others not wanting to deal with maintenance, he said.

The key was insisting on quality, Thierer said.

"If you are going to attract the best kind of people, you need to build the kind of housing they are going to come to," he said.

Dave Vigness

A regular at City Council meetings for the past few years, Vigness said he offered something lacking in the other two non-incumbent candidates.

"I'm a little more familiar with the issues, because I have attended the meetings, than those running who aren't on the Council" he said. "With the pool, sewer and Sunflower, I think I have a little more insight than the other two. It might take them a little more time to get up to speed."

He prepared further by visiting with Mayor Dave Anderson about city finances, Vigness said. He anticipated the end of the Huhtamaki abatement would provide a "large chuck" of revenue, which could be used to offer some property tax relief. But, if possible, he would like to address the city's affordability concerns by freezing city utility rate increases for seniors and others on fixed incomes, he said.

"It's not something you can do off the top of your head," he said. "It's something you would have to look at and decide if it was something that could be offered.

"I don't know what all the options are. I would hope to freeze them where they're at for seniors so we can keep them in their homes."

His spending priority was street maintenance, which Vigness said may have been allowed to slide as the city focused on the extensive upgrades to 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Vigness, too, saw opportunities at the Sunflower water plant, but said the ongoing master plan's results would determine his decision.

"We shouldn't stay married to an old plant if it is better to build closer," he said. "If we're going to have to spend that money, we have to make sure we spend it right."

The city's planning process and a determined City Council succeeded in greatly downsizing the Arbor Ridge subdivision, Vigness said. The Council needed to maintain that commitment as more developers flocked to De Soto when the sewer plant was finished in two years, he said.

The sewer bond repayment method did assume residential growth, but the city could still insist on quality residential development because of the opportunity for commercial and industrial development that would come with the treatment facility completion and the added demand that will come with the cleanup and other pre-development activities at Sunflower, Vigness said.

Vigness owns a communication systems installation company. That background didn't make him optimistic much could be done to convince SBC to drop the metro charge, he said.

"We have to have more leverage to convince them to give up an income source," he said.

Competition from cable companies could give some a cheaper alternative, while additional local service providers could be the answer for other residents, depending on SBC's tariff agreement with the state, Vigness said.

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