Debate among JoCo chairman candidates focuses on spending
Johnson County Commission chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh and her opponent for the seat, Commissioner Ed Eilert, continued to debate county spending during a joint appearance Tuesday.
The two appeared at an Overland Park forum to answer policy questions written by the Public Policy Council in Johnson County. They’ll square off in the Nov. 2 general election for a four-year term in the nonpartisan race.
“I’ve been accused of deficit spending and out-of-control spending by my opponent,” Surbaugh said in her opening remarks, “but I feel my record speaks against that. Johnson County currently has reserves of 33 percent of the budget.”
When presented with a question regarding the continuing demands on the county’s growing infrastructure, Eilert reiterated his concern over what he deemed Surbaugh’s deficit spending.
The demands “on the infrastructure are a major challenge to the county and to the commission, which is why we have to get our spending under control,” Eilert proposed. “We’ll have to evaluate our resources and prioritize the services we provide. In the end we’ll have to exercise some discipline to get out of the debt we’re in, but it can be done.”
Surbaugh responded to the mention of deficit spending by saying that all planning possibilities published by the commission are presented in the worst -case scenario.
The issue the two agreed on the most was the question of altering annexation procedures. Both agreed the procedures in place are working in a difficult situation and have no need for major changes.
“I agree that (annexation) is an important issue to all citizens of Johnson County, but I think the process now is working,” Eilert stated. “I’m not saying the process couldn’t be tweaked or reviewed a little, especially in some areas that aren’t uniform across the board, but overall I think it’s fine.”
Surbaugh is also in favor of keeping the annexation process as is.
“Annexation matters are difficult and it is one of the most difficult jobs I have,” Surbaugh said. “It’s difficult, but it works.”
The two had differing opinions on mass transit.
Surbaugh spoke of a plan to begin testing new bus lines, some through Mission, and to research methods for encouraging residents to choose the bus.
“Johnson County loves its cars, it always has, and that’s what we’re going to have to overcome, maybe we should go with my daughter’s suggestion and install latte dispensers on buses,” Surbaugh suggested with a grin.
Eilert saw the transit issue as one of differing populations using the bus: the elderly and those with disabilities who “have no other option” but to ride the bus, and those with alternatives to the bus.
“We have to provide a transit system for those without an alternative, but we also have to realize if we want a good transit system we’re going to have to pay for it,” Eilert said. “I think we should test a few new lines, maybe around The Plaza and other areas, and if they don’t have the ridership then we cut them loose.”
Both agreed that economic development was not the job of the county; it is the job of the independent cities in Johnson County. Eilert proposes a task force with new commission adviser geared at helping cities develop new projects and encouraging growth. Surbaugh tied economic development for the county to maintaining social services and the quality of life for Johnson County residents.
Because the race for chair of the county commission is non-partisan, the candidates were asked to tell the audience what made each of them different from his/her opponent.
Eilert outlined his business and financial background, stating he would be able to create stronger budgets for the county in the future and could get the county out of its “deficit spending” trend. He also promised to bring about a positive relationship between the county and the constituents. In closing, Eilert professed his belief that he can make a difference for the county and that Johnson County’s best days are still ahead.
Surbaugh spoke of her belief in keeping government accessible to the people and maintaining a strong sense of fiscal responsibility as her shining attributes. She reiterated her strong policy on reserve funds, the high quality of life for Johnson County residents and her history in Johnson County politics and assured the audience that during her term; Johnson County, Surbaugh said, has been “on the right track and moving forward.”