Leawood Mayor and City Council candidates on the issues: Budget and spending

Leawood 2024 budget

Leawood City Hall. File photo.

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:

Leawood’s 2024 budget calls for nearly $100 million in spending, a roughly 11% increase over the previous year. Assess the city’s current budget. Where do you think it most well serves Leawood residents? Are there any areas you think need cutting?

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


Steve Hentzen

The 11% jump in spending in the 2024 budget is a serious misstep in our direction as a city and will make life more difficult for our residents on fixed incomes, representing ineffective cost increases and a lack of strong oversight.

There is no question that our parks, events and public spaces need to be fully and adequately funded, but increases in spending need to be carefully considered to make sure our money is being spent in ways that really work for our city. Oversight and transparency are the keys to unifying our city, and as mayor I will be focused on bringing our city administration and our citizens closer together, ensuring that our spending matches our Leawood priorities.

Marc Elkins

Leawood’s exceptional neighborhoods and quality of life come from the safety of our community, good roads, stormwater management and our commitment to parks and the arts.

The increase in the city’s budget was largely driven by inflation and a small number of additional employees. About 7.5% of the city’s operating budget was needed to cover increases in the cost of goods and services acquired by the city for municipal services. Employee benefits costs increased by 31% and the cost of employee health insurance increased by 10%.

The budget also included funding for a communications director, chief of emergency medical services and a building inspector. These positions will enhance the city’s services to our citizens.

Leawood’s police and fire departments create an exceptionally safe place for our citizens. With a violent crime rate of 0.7 per 1,000 citizens, Leawood has the lowest crime rate of all Johnson County cities and is the safest Kansas city with populations exceeding 25,000. The Fire Department is one of only 114 departments in the US with an ISO rating of “1.”

Leawood also provides excellent infrastructure. Maintenance crews protected our storm sewers and waterways by removing nearly 4,000 tons of debris. Public Works administered over $40 million in public construction contracts.

Leawood’s commitment to the arts and our parks is unique among Johnson County cities. The aesthetics of our Arts in Public Places Initiative and the dedication of parks and green spaces contribute significantly to our quality of life.

City Council Ward 1

Alan Sunkel

Inflation spiked in recent years for a number of reasons, especially in the area of employee costs, and this budget increase reflects that. The general inflation rate has dropped to a lower number now but is still not as low as in previous decades. In my opinion, labor costs will continue to rise more rapidly than overall inflation, so cutting the budget will be very challenging if we wish to maintain the services that residents of north Leawood have told me they value. I dropped a survey at 2,800 homes in Ward 1 this summer and the respondents are very pleased overall with the level of services received for their tax dollars and do not wish for those services to be cut.

I will, however, use my 30 years of budgeting experience in my manufacturing business to look at the city budget for places to save money. One area I would like to focus on — with the help of our city staff — is our equipment replacement policy. Savings might be found there by using non-emergency equipment longer before replacement.

Bob Brettell

The current council’s unsustainable “tax and spend” budgeting approach needs to change ASAP. Ward 1 residents are being “taxed out” of homes that they’ve lived in their entire lives. The cost spiral of the most recent budget (even considering inflation) is reckless and disregards the needs of our aging and income-constrained residents.

The city’s baseline financial documents – the ones that the budget is built from – haven’t been updated in almost 25 years. That’s right – somehow the mayor, the council, city staff, etc., never noticed that they were working with documentation from the last century as they passed budget after budget increasing taxes in four of the last five years. When elected, I’ll prioritize updating these documents to provide a better foundation for the city’s budgeting work.

Sadly, the current administration would rather deflect by focusing on paltry mill rate reductions than directly address the fact that they’re raising taxes every year. Kansas law requires taxing authorities to adhere to a revenue neutral rate for property taxation, but Leawood dodges that every year choosing rather to paper over it. The fact is that the tax burden on our citizens has and continues to increase as evidenced by rising property tax bills. How much, you ask? In terms of excess over the revenue neutral rate, I’ve calculated that at over 20% in just 3 years. (You can check out the math at my campaign website.)

My goal is to raise the professionalism of the council by bringing to it skills that the council desperately needs and that I alone among the other candidates can provide – finance, tax, legal and economic development. My Ward 1 opponents admit that – unlike me – they’ve never run any enterprise as large as the city of Leawood’s more than 300 staff members and $100 million budget. One of them said the quiet part out loud – “I would rely on the expertise of the city staff to properly educate me.”

With all due respect, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for people to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s not working and a hiring mistake with this much at stake isn’t something any Leawood citizen should want to see happen … or worse, enable, by voting for it.

Matt Peppes

A majority of the increase was used to hire additional staff to help improve the quality and efficiency of city services and also increase capacity allowing the city to take on new projects and initiatives that may have been previously understaffed or neglected. Here’s the thing: when people are looking to move to Leawood, they know this is a more expensive place to live. But people still choose to move to Leawood because they value public safety, the neighborhood feel, great schools, the tree canopies, the multitude of parks, convenient shopping and restaurants and not having potholes in their streets.

Out of multiple cities across the metro, Leawood has one of the lowest mil levy rates and still manages to be the top city with regard to all those reasons I just mentioned. In my opinion, the city staff and council have been doing an excellent job serving the residents based on the current budget. Are there any areas that could be cut or decreased? Possibly, although I’m not sure how any Ward 1 candidate could answer this, at least not honestly, without being present at the Leawood Budget and Finance Committee Meeting on June 26th to discuss the proposed 2024 budget — for which I was in attendance.

It’s easy to critique the 2024 budget when you’re reading it after the fact. Being present and hearing the transparent conversations between the staff, councilmembers, and resident representatives on how to best serve the people of Leawood offers greater insight into how the city plans to allocate resources for projects or services that matter to our community. The city staff did a remarkable job ensuring our community’s resources are allocated in ways that best serve the needs and interests of the residents.

City Council Ward 2

Margaret Berger

An 11% budget increase is unsustainable. Increasing the budget to this degree in the deteriorating economy was completely out of touch with the economic reality of our citizens’ lives. Protecting the city’s revenue stream by raiding the savings of our taxpayers, weakens the city. The taxpayers’ financial security should be our first priority.

We need to return to the revenue neutral rate which will automatically lower the mill levy. Then we need to build a fiscally responsible budget from the bottom up. This should be based on what the economy is now, not on what it was. Taxpayers have to do that, and so should the city.

Sherrie Gayed

Leawood residents receive a tremendous amount of value out of their dollars. Leawood is consistently ranked one of the safest cities in Kansas year after year. Leawood’s Fire Department is exceptional and officially accredited (which is not always the case). Leawood Public Works is efficient and swift with street maintenance and has a proactive approach to replacing aging infrastructure. Potholes in Leawood are filled within one day of being reported, and our streets and parking lots are cleared of snow within 48 hours of a snow event.

Inflation does not discriminate, and cities are no exception. Rising interest rates impact the costs for capital improvement projects. Inflation resulted in needing to increase wages for public safety and maintenance positions to remain competitive in the job market, allowing residents to continue to enjoy the well-maintained city we expect. Electricity has increased on average 6.2% over last year. Just as we see utility costs rise within our homes, the city has as well. Construction and material costs have risen dramatically. I see this in my day-to-day job as well. Specifically, concrete has increased by approximately 10%.

To help combat these rising costs, the city has prioritized and deferred some budget requests to the next year. Furthermore, by increasing our focus on economic development to continue to attract high quality companies with high paying jobs, which will ultimately result in an increase in revenue. By being proactive about increasing revenue rather than sacrificing our services and amenities with cutting the mill levy, the city of Leawood can minimize the impacts of inflation.

Tomorrow, we will publish the candidates’ responses to the next question: 

Construction of the East Village project, formerly dubbed Cameron’s Court, near 135th and State Line is underway after a years-long process that often proved contentious. The 116-acre development includes a mix of single-family homes, apartments and townhome-style villas, as well as office space, a restaurant, public amphitheater, a park and grocery store. Do you support this project? Why or why not? For you, what does ideal growth and development look like along the 135th Street corridor?