Overland Park city council wards 4, 5 and 6 candidates on the issues: The city’s budget

The clocktower in downtown Overland Park

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Overland Park City Council address.

Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to the citizens of Overland Park.

Each day this week, we will publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

What’s one area of the Overland Park city budget where you would support reducing funding, and what’s one area where you would support increasing funding? Why?

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on the issue:

Ward 5

Sheila Rodriguez

I would reduce funding for tax incentives/abatements provided to commercial developers for projects in prime (non-blight) areas of the city. Overland Park is clearly attractive to new and expanding businesses. I believe most commercial development will happen organically and without the gift of a tax incentive.

I would increase funding to improve the quality of our infrastructure and expand our public services/amenities. OUR taxes should be reinvested in OUR community. Our budget should be able to fund a sufficient number of first responders needed for a city of our size, afford higher quality streets/curbs/sidewalks and address traffic congestion concerns WITHOUT raising our taxes. Homeowners should not be required to contribute more taxes if the value of taxes paid is not meeting the high expectations of our residents, business owners and visitors.

With a new Mayor and City Manager coming on-board next year, it’s an ideal time to consider changing the way we build our budget. I’d like to see the city consider implementing Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB). It’s a more efficient budgeting process that requires the budget to be built from the ground up, starting from zero. Every expense must be justified for each new budget cycle, not just rolled forward from year to year. Not only does this budgeting method encourage cross-department collaboration, it improves financial transparency, accountability, and prioritizes funding for essential services and programs. If the City of Houston can implement ZBB with an annual operating budget of $5.5B for 2.3M residents, so can Overland Park with an annual operating budget of $327M for 200K residents.

Sam Passer

To specifically answer the question – I’d like to increase spending on public safety and decrease funding by eliminating inefficiencies by modernizing capabilities where technology can be leveraged. With a new city manager who will follow Bill Ebel’s retirement, and a new mayor being elected in November, I think it’s a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the budget. Let me be very clear, I don’t have concerns about how things have been done in the past – I just think from time to time, it’s very effective for most organizations to obtain a new perspective.

I know one area where many residents would like to see a change is paying for an alternative to chip seal to pave streets. The Infrastructure Advisory Group will be appointed soon and will begin meeting in November. This group will look at how our streets are paved with chip seal and other alternatives as well as all infrastructure in the city. All of these items impact quality of life and will likely have the most potential impact on future budgets. I look forward to this group’s recommendations and broad-based scope of feedback which will examine the needs of the community.

Ward 6

Jeffrey Cox

I would support increased spending on road maintenance, as chip seal is completely inappropriate for residential streets. I did and continue to oppose the commercialization of the Arboretum, which is both ruining a beloved public space and wasting millions of dollars. The new “visitors Center” (which should be called an “Events Center”) is costing the City $12 million (over and above the $11 million in donations) and will require an additional 11 employees at an annual cost of $350,000. So, we are spending three years of the mill levy increase on a single building that will reduce the quality of life for the residents who live near and are the most frequent users of the Arboretum.

Chris Newlin (incumbent)

When one considers the nationally recognized quality of life in Overland Park, cutting from our present budget would present issues. Residents may not realize that our city budget contains expenditures for over 1,400 employees, and it also supports the cost of maintaining our parks, building street infrastructure, and snow plowing. We accomplish all of this and much more while maintaining the lowest tax rate of any first-class city in Johnson County, KS. Overland Park residents pay 70% to 80% less in property taxes than neighboring cities. Cutting our budget would result in a major reduction in services our residents are accustomed to receiving.

In regard to increasing funding, I would support adding limited expenditures in two areas, Public Safety and Infrastructure, which have received overwhelming community support: 1) Funding Overland Park Crisis Action Team (OPCAT) which was the #1 recommendation from the OP Mental Health Task Force where I served as Chairman. This increase also includes adding 22 police officers, 6 firefighters, and contract cybersecurity resources at the cost of $65 a year per household in Ward 6. And 2) Increase funding for our street infrastructure where older streets in the north part of the city are showing signs of deterioration and require rebuilding. I supported the creation of the Infrastructure Advisory Committee which is comprised of a group of residents from each Ward and professionals who will guide the process through recommendations to the City Council.

Ward 4

Scott Mosher

The budget process is very time consuming for all involved. At the end of the day, it’s a best guess and wish list! We budget according to what we think will be coming in and hope things like Covid never happens. When it does we take out the nice to do’s and “tighten” the belt! I just want to explain why we need to add 1 mill for our mental health team for the police department, why do we do chipseal, why are our homeowner tax’s going up. It is because of direct tax giveaways to developers. They don’t pay taxes to the city, they get to not pay their share which directly affects our budget. We allow certain businesses to charge more of a sales tax as well, when you purchase from them and then the city gives them back that money. That’s millions of dollars that could go into the budget so we don’t have to increase your taxes. You see, it’s about thinking we have to pay people to do business here! I don’t believe that and never will. If You want to do business here pay your share and we will do our part and use your business and trade with you! This is why we don’t have the money to do things right!

Our budget next year should mainly be focused on the services we need to provide for public safety and infrastructure. The differed maintenance facing us is $250 million, estimated. What a legacy left behind. I’m a firm believer that the City budget is no different than all of ours. We zero balance every month! There are other cities starting to do this, to great success! We can only spend what we have and by not giving incentives to every business that wants to come to OP is a great way to start! We need to concentrate on fixing our roadways properly and longer term. We need to fund our first responders and hire only the best! We have great men and women in position and we need to add to that by attracting only the best! There may be some projects that have to wait, in order to take care of public safety and infrastructure. One that comes to mind is the Arboretum. I think a lot about the money spent there. Nice to have the best, but getting there on chipseal is not how I would like to do it.

We need to look at a new City manager that understands zero budgeting and we need to live within our means. We need to be respectful of our tax dollars and manage them wisely. Maybe then we will Take care of those residents on fixed incomes and budgets like they should be taken care of!

Stacie Gram (incumbent)

I believe our current budget is fiscally prudent and makes good use of our taxpayer dollars. With the lowest property tax of any city in Johnson County, living in Overland Park provides great value for our money in an award-winning city. If we had the funding, I would increase resources for infrastructure. I would move away from chip sealed roads and fund improvements to sidewalks, curbs, stormwater drainage and streetlights. This is one of the most significant needs facing our city. I would also add a part or full-time sustainability director to ensure that our city is incorporating environmentally friendly policy in all areas of government. I would also create a housing fund to assist in developing varied housing like smaller single-family homes or cottage communities and to assist in maintaining areas in northern Overland Park.

The question as to reducing funding presumes that there is waste in the budget, and I don’t believe there is. Salaries and other costs related to personnel constitute about 70% of our budget and those costs consistently increase. When I joined the Council during the pandemic, we faced a budget shortfall. If faced with that again, I would look at certain swimming pools that are underutilized and expenses to maintain parks and amenities that would not be essential services. Cutting these simply to reduce expenses would not be in our city’s best interest as they are a key part of what makes Overland Park a great place to live.

On Wednesday, we will publish the candidates’ responses to question #3:

The cost of housing in Overland Park makes it unattainable for many families with average or below average incomes. What is your plan to ensure Overland Park has housing options that would be affordable to people without high household incomes? Would you support ordinance changes to allow developers to build attainable housing like cottage communities, town homes, etc…?