Archive for Thursday, December 31, 2009

Recession Explorer’s top story of 2009

December 31, 2009

The year 2009 will be remembered in De Soto as it will be elsewhere as the year of the worst economic downtown in at least three decades.

Although the recession hit much harder elsewhere in the country — Johnson County's unemployment rate in November was 6.5 percent compared to the national rate of 10 percent — De Soto wasn't immune to lost jobs, struggling businesses and home foreclosures from the downturn.

Beyond the personal level, the recession hit local governments hard. With its smaller reliance on sales tax revenue, the city of De Soto fared better than many of its larger neighbors and finished the year with nearly the same general fund balance as in 2008 through departmental belt tightening.

Revenue shortfalls were and continue to be much more a concern to De Soto USD 232. Cuts enacted since the first of the year, first by the Legislature and then by Gov. Mark Parkinson, have reduced state support to for K though 12 education by $200 million. Superintendent Ron Wimmer and his staff told the Board of Education earlier this month that cuts were serious and the district would review building staffing levels, reducing overtime, exploring early retirement options, reducing staff through attrition and limiting hiring to deal with them. He also warned more serious cuts affecting the next school year could be coming once the Legislature returns in January.

State education funding played a role in the No. 2 local story for 2009— the resignation of USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner and subsequent hiring of Wimmer to replace her. Differences between Zoellner and board members Randy Johnson and Bill Fletcher were evident since the two men's election to the board in the spring 2007. Things came to a head in April after measures Zoellner took in response to budget cuts regarding to special education staffing were reversed by the board.

Zoellner announced her resignation with two other district administrators on April 27 after a special board meeting, accepting an offer to become superintendent of the Louisburg district. Although Zoellner's official resignation date was June 30, she worked from home her last two months with the district as the board moved to fill the vacancy with the hiring of retired Olathe superintendent, Ron Wimmer. First hired as a one-year interim, Wimmer has since agreed to stay on in the position through the 2010-2011 school year.

Zoellner's resignation also followed on the heals of spring board elections, the No. 3 story of the year. The election saw Johnson re-elected to another four-year term with a slim five-vote margin over challenger Roger Templin in a three-way race. Johnson's win coupled with that of Tammy Thomas signaled a shift in the board.

De Soto's No. 4 story was the De Soto City Council's yearlong efforts to find direction for the city's future water supply. The De Soto City Council voted in February to end consideration of a wholesale water purchase agreement with the city of Olathe in favor of refurbishing the city's water treatment plant at the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant. That decision did come with a cost. It is estimated the plant needs $5 million in eventual upgrades, including $1.5 million needed now to make it a reliable source of water production.

To spare city water customers from shouldering that burden alone, the council instructed staff to explore a wholesale water cooperative supplied by the Sunflower plant. To that end, De Soto, the city of Gardner and Johnson County rural water districts Nos. 6 and 7 shared in the cost of a feasibility study with the state of Kansas, exploring a Sunflower supplied cooperative. The final report last month produced very favorable numbers, and the year ended with the city awaiting word of the other jurisdictions on their interest in the cooperative.

The No. 5 story was the realization of another regionalization effort, the merger of the De Soto Fire Department and Johnson County Rural Fire District No. 3. An advisory committee chaired by Linda Zindler put the final pieces of the merger in place over the past 10 months and the new Northwest Consolidated Fire District will come into existence New Year's Day.

The merger was one of the accomplishments Mayor Dave Anderson touted in his successful bid for a third term, the No. 6 story of the year. Anderson turned back a challenge from Randy Johnson, but there was change in the council room as Ron McDaniel and Rick Walker won seats on the city council, replacing Tim Maniez and Ted Morse, both of whom chose not to seek re-election.

After months of discussion, the USD 232 Board of Education agreed to a $3.8 million expansion of De Soto High School. In a nod to the recession, the expansion — The Explorer's No. 7 story — will be without the new gymnasium but will provide more classrooms and office space for teachers as well as elbow room for the school's growing enrollment.

In the first week of the year, Calvin Hayden became the first De Soto resident to serve as a Johnson County commissioner in almost a half century, providing a voice for the community in Olathe and appointing De Soto residents to key county committees and advisory bodies.

At No. 9 is the De Soto Chamber of Commerce's Country Concert, which brought country music star Tracy Byrd to the city's Riverfest Park, which would also be the site of the city's Fourth of July celebration and the

The Explorer's No. 10 story is Starside Elementary School's recognition last May the Kansas Green School of the Year as a for the innovative steps it took in its yearlong environmental awareness initiative.

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