Archive for Thursday, November 2, 2006

County chair rematch focuses on government efficiency

November 2, 2006

It's a rematch, but neither of the candidates in the race for Johnson County Chair thinks the results of four years ago will be duplicated.

In 2002, Charlotte O'Hara and Annabeth Surbaugh faced off in the general election campaign to become the first person to fill the newly created commission chair position. Surbaugh easily prevailed in the non-partisan race, winning with 60 percent of the 149,000 votes cast.

O'Hara announced in April she wanted a rematch and said she had been in 104 county precincts, walked 125 miles and knocked on 1,700 doors.

Surbaugh said she was running the remaining days of her campaign with the assumption the election would be tighter this time because of O'Hara's large personally financed campaign chest and radio, TV and print advertising. She had $50,000 remaining in her campaign treasury and intended to spend it, Surbaugh said.

Surbaugh said she would continue to stress past accomplishments and goals for the next four years.

Surbaugh said she was proud of the professional, working relationship she nurtured on the county commission as its first chair. Everyone gets heard, but business gets done, she said.

O'Hara said her message of controlling property taxes and reining in backdoor property tax increases through reappraisal has resonated with voters, she said.

O'Hara scoffs at the idea of a new courthouse for Johnson County District Court with an estimated price tag of $92 million, noting the current courthouse's recent $18 million upgrade.

O'Hara said she would support moves in the Kansas Legislature that are expected to surface in the next legislative to cap reappraisal. The move would cap any reappraisal increase to the consumer price index.

"Our county appraiser is an automatic tax machine," she said. "They tell us they didn't raise mill levies, but property taxes increase 8 to 10 percent a year."

Surbaugh was on record as opposing such legislation, O'Hara said.

Local elected officials tend not to support moves by states to limit local control, Surbaugh said. But she said she and other county commissioners advanced a legislative measure in the mid-1990s that would have capped property taxes for seniors. She would support such legislation again but said it wouldn't be successful because of the state's addiction to Johnson County tax revenue.

"Western Kansas people like Johnson County tax dollars too much," Surbaugh said. "It makes good campaign rhetoric, but it's a pipedream that won't sell in Topeka."

Even without a reappraisal cap, the Johnson County Commission could afford to roll back the mill levy, O'Hara said. The county's 2007 budget had a reserve of $57 million or 22 percent. The county's policy was to carry an 11 percent reserve, she said.

"We were overtaxed $28 million," she said. "We have plenty of tax to address our infrastructure needs. It's just bad management and lack of policy."

Further undermining the need for the reserves, was the county commission's approval of a mill levy increase for the jail expansion and a quarter-cent public safety sales tax, O'Hara said. The sales tax can be used for capital and operational needs but is being used solely for operational needs, she said.

When she was first elected to the commission 14 years ago, there was no reserve policy, Surbaugh said. The commission has adopted a policy to maintain a 15 percent reserve not the 11 percent O'Hara cites, she said.

The reserve was purposely increased to near 20 percent for 2007 with the knowledge it would be drawn down in the coming years as the county paid for the new jail, she said.

One of the first-term accomplishments Surbaugh points out is maintaining the county's triple-A bond rating. That rating, which saves the county millions in bonded interest, testifies to the county's sound financial leadership, she said.

It is much harder for counties to obtain triple-A rating than cities, because counties are a provider to social services, the incumbent said. That makes it more difficult to predict revenue streams because of frequent federal and state budget cuts for programs and because of changing population patterns that could increase demand for services, Surbaugh said.

"There are only 38 counties out of 3,300 in the country that have a triple-A rating," she said. "We are dead set in the middle of those counties in the percentage of reserve to budget. In my mind, in the middle is where you want to be."

The commission did set aside mill levy authority to pay for the jail expansion, but that would only be part of the cost as the county's incarcerated population continues to grow -- it has doubled in the last eight years -- and the county sees increased costs of insurance and in providing inmates food and medical care, Surbaugh said.

"If ever there was a good time to maintain a strong reserve, this is it," she said.

Despite a call for leaner government, O'Hara said she didn't favor widespread program cuts. To the contrary, the county needed to put more money into senior programs and Johnson County Development Supports, which has a long waiting list for services, she said.

There did need to be a review of Johnson County Transit, O'Hara said.

"They're just driving big empty buses around the county I guess to the commission can feel like they are doing something," O'Hara said. "They're not. There spending $11 million a year. That whole program needs to be revisited."

The need in the county was for senior transportation, O'Hara said. That should be the county's focus, she said.

Surbaugh said one of her goals in a second term would be to prepare as both the county's infrastructure and population age. That may seem odd in some of the newly developed parts of the county or in places like De Soto that have yet to see a great deal of county investment, but it would be a challenge in the northeast part of the county, she said. Added planning will be needed because the retirement of baby boomers will change income levels of residents and the county's tax revenue picture, Surbaugh said.

O'Hara also attacks what Surbaugh views as one of her strengths -- the incumbent's ability to communicate with constituents and community leaders. O'Hara sites as examples the economic development sales tax that provides grants to the county's school districts and last spring's effort to get legislative approval of an infrastructure sales tax that would not have been shared with the cities and was not shared with mayors before proposed in Topeka.

Surbaugh said under her leadership the county remained committed to seeking constituent participation in county government. Citizen boards and task forces help with recommendations on a wide range of topics from street improvements to social programs, she said.

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