Earlier this summer, the Post asked our readers what issues you wanted to hear candidates running for Leawood Mayor and City Council to address leading up to the Nov. 7 election.
Based on that feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire centering the issues most important to Leawood residents.
Each day this week, we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to one question. (Note: We only asked for responses from candidates in contested races.)
Today, we’re publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:
One of the most discussed issues among Johnson County homeowners right now is property taxes. With rising property values, many cities are seeing their annual revenues go up even if they hold their municipal mill, or property tax, rates flat or decrease them. Leawood is cutting its mill rate slightly in 2024, and the city has not raised its mill levy in 20 years. But should Leawood consider cutting its mill rate even more in order to provide taxpayers some relief, especially seniors on fixed incomes? If yes, what would you cut from the budget to account for lost revenue? If no, explain why the rising revenues are necessary.
Below are the answers the Post received from candidates on this issue:
Leawood has reduced its mill levy in two of the last three years from 24.747 mils to 23.5 mils. This is a reduction of 5%. Prior to that, the mill levy had not increased in 20 years. That mill levy is less than that assessed by either Prairie Village or Lenexa. The increase in city taxes resulting from increased property valuations in 2023 is approximately $18.00 per month on average.
Leawood delivers a very high level of municipal services to its citizens including infrastructure for streets and roads. Leawood’s Fire and Police Departments afford the city an exceptional level of public safety. It is important that Leawood continue to deliver this high level of municipal services.
The cost of delivering those municipal services, however, is subject to the same inflationary pressures that are impacting the nation’s economy generally. The cost of borrowing funds more than doubled. Seven and a half percent of the city’s operating budget is needed to account for increases in obtaining goods and services. The cost of concrete is up 12% and the cost of asphalt has increased by 5%. The city’s portion of employee health insurance premiums are up by 10% and the cost of other employee benefits is up by 31.27%.
To continue to deliver the same level of municipal services in the face of these increased costs, I would not favor a further reduction in the city’s mil levy.
While the 2024 budget has been passed by the city council, as Mayor, I will challenge the inflated 11% year over year spending increases. With such dramatic jumps in spending, cuts need to be considered across the board to ensure our resources are being used with the best interests of the whole city in mind, including potential cuts to the mill levy — which will benefit all city residents but especially those on limited fixed incomes with the least ability to deal with spending increases.
City Council Ward 1
First, Leawood needs to return to compliance with Kansas law that requires a Revenue Neutral Rate (KS Art. 29 79-2988), the effect of which automatically lowers the mill rate to keep tax revenues flat. By exceeding the revenue neutral rate (which they did again for the 2024 budget cycle), they’re literally voting for a tax increase.
Next, the city’s governing financial documents are 25 years old. Budgets are built from the ground up, so it’s imperative we update our foundational financial documents to reflect 21st Century realities. The current council’s failure to update these – or maybe even notice they’re a generation old – tells you all you really need to know about their governing competence.
Finally, the city’s budgeting continues to reflect an “empire building” mentality with ever-growing headcount costs. When budgeting, the city needs to recognize that adding people creates an expense that likely continues for 30 years – meaning every $1 spent is really more like $30. So that brand new GIS staff position (that should be cost-shared with Johnson County or other cities) at a $150K/yr cost is actually a $4.5M outlay (and that’s before COLA, inflation, etc.) over the life of that hire.
With a background in law, finance, taxation and economic development, I feel certain I can remedy the above missteps, return the city to fiscal discipline and keep Ward 1 residents from being priced out of the community they founded by the callous disregard of the current City Council’s reckless approach to budgeting.
The important thing to remember here is the city did approve a mill rate decrease to provide taxpayers with some relief. I do not think the City should consider cutting it even further at this moment in time. When people think of Leawood or choose to move their family to Leawood, it’s because the city does such an incredible job keeping the infrastructure in top condition, it’s a safe place to live, and it provides a wide range of amenities for residents to enjoy.
Cutting the mill levy rate even further would have a huge impact on providing continuous infrastructure improvements, ongoing safety, and amenities that residents have come to know and love. Think little to no potholes, low crime rates, a multitude of parks, trails, and trees as far as the eye can see that are all well-maintained — it’s why people choose to live here in Leawood.
I would be open to learning more about programs that would provide some type of relief to seniors on fixed incomes. In this instance, I would rely on the expertise of the city staff to properly educate me on the available programs or options along with hearing potential ideas from Leawood residents.
Because no one likes to pay higher taxes, I would like to cut the mill rate further. But the city’s costs are rising with inflation and labor costs are rising faster than inflation. I would not cut the services we all value in Leawood such as police and fire protection. I would certainly use my 30 years of experience in budgeting in my own manufacturing business to scrutinize the budget each year. One area I would look at is the equipment replacement schedule which, I believe, is quite frequent. While that is likely warranted in emergency equipment, where failure could be catastrophic, we might be able to use other equipment longer.
I am committed, however, to working with the council and mayor, as well as the Johnson County Commission, to help longtime residents who wish to stay in their homes. That could involve, at a certain age and/or length of occupancy, instituting a cap at the current level of property taxes, or deferral of payment of the increased portion until sale of the home.
City Council Ward 2
We must pursue responsible ways to lower the mill levy and our ballooning city budget. That starts with reviewing every dollar we spend with a mindset that remembers it is the taxpayers’ money. We have to prioritize the needed expenditures for police, fire, roads, sidewalks, clean and safe parks and yet find savings in things we want but don’t need at this time.
The arts flourish when economies are strong. Our city boasts over twenty art installations in our parks. That is an impressive and large art collection accumulated during a strong economy. Our economy is no longer strong. It is in a recession. We need to cut spending and we could begin with a moratorium on art installations in our parks. If we cut expenditures on things we want now we might not have to cut back on things we need as the recession deepens.
This recession is putting economic stress on the most vulnerable members of our community: young families and our elderly. Our city needs to be the taxing government body that not only sets the example of lowering taxes on our citizens but lobbies other government bodies to do the same. You can not tax your way out of a recession, but if you adopt fiscally responsible budgeting principles you can lessen the financial losses for everyone.
First and foremost, property tax assessments are determined at the county level and not at the city level. The increase in assessment is unfortunately a product of the housing market we are in. Low supply of homes and just as we as residents feel the impacts of inflation in our own lives, cities feel the impact as well. From labor to electricity, costs have risen. Slightly cutting the mill rate as Leawood did gives everyone some relief and not just one group of our residents as some have suggested doing. This allows for the high quality of services and maintenance to remain to the residents.
We enjoy and expect our streets and other essential infrastructure to be very well maintained. The incoming revenue to the city will also maintain the city’s reserves, which is incredibly important so Leawood can preserve its AAA bond rating. This rating allows the city to borrow money at the lowest rate possible. Those lower interest rates are what allows the city to continue vital capital improvement project. The fact that Leawood has been able to provide such exceptional services to the residents without raising the mill levy in 20 years and in fact decreasing the mill levy is a huge win for residents.
Tomorrow, we will publish the candidates’ responses to the next question:
Regardless of who wins in November, this is guaranteed to be a change election for Leawood. The city’s long-serving mayor Peggy Dunn, along with three veteran city councilmembers, are all stepping down. What changes, if any, would you like to see in how Leawood city government operates? Beyond that, how can the public get more involved in what City Hall does?