by Ivan Foley
The future sales tax structure in the county and a past increase in the county’s property tax were among the items of discussion at a lively candidate forum for two females, both Republicans, vying to be elected first district Platte County commissioner.
Beverlee Roper, incumbent who was first elected in 2012, and challenger Dagmar Wood faced a crowd of more than 70 people gathered at the South Platte Community Center/YMCA in Parkville on June 23.
One of the first questions directed to Roper, of Weatherby Lake, and Wood, of Parkville, was: Is it your intention to ask voters to renew the half cent park tax when it expires in approximately four years? “It’s my intention to ask voters to renew a tax, not necessarily a half cent. It will depend on what voters tell us and property owners tell us what they want,” Roper answered.
Wood: “My thinking is that we should ask the voters to renew a quarter cent sales tax for parks and a quarter cent sales tax for law enforcement instead of a half cent for parks.”
Wood says the county has done a “terrible job” of saving for future park maintenance. In the 16 years of the half cent sales tax for parks, the county has saved only $3.4 million for maintenance.
“That’s only three percent saved for future maintenance,” which she said would be equal to only about two years worth of maintenance costs. She said this is an indication county officials “have just assumed” voters are always going to renew the tax at a half cent. “That’s just lazy.”
Wood said a quarter cent sales tax for parks and a quarter cent sales tax for law enforcement would be enough to cover maintenance for parks while giving law enforcement its own revenue stream, which would take a burden off the county’s general fund. It would give county law enforcement the ability “to pay for things like jails” and perhaps increase the pay scale for county law enforcement officers.
Roper agreed that a quarter cent sales tax for parks would take care of parks maintenance and programs “and it might build a couple of parks.”
The issue comes with whether or not the county will need another community center, she said.
“But you can’t just lower taxes and expect (new) stuff to appear,” Roper said. “Right now, I think we’re good with a quarter cent. It depends on what the people tell us they want.”
“The public has told us they want access to trails. We have to listen to the people,” Roper added. “We have to go out and survey and find out what is needed.”
Wood: “We’ve built our park system from scratch. We have made great strides that have positively impacted Platte County, for sure. We can’t keep building if we can’t afford to maintain the parks. We can’t afford to maintain what we have now. If voters don’t approve a renewal, we are out of luck. It won’t take two years (to spend the $3.4 million in maintenance reserve). We need to be responsible and only build what we can take care of and we haven’t done that.”
Also on the topic of taxes, Wood was critical of Roper’s decision to vote in favor of the five cent tax levy increase for the county. In September of 2014 Roper and Duane Soper, second district commissioner, voted to increase the county’s property tax levy from one cent per $100 of assessed valuation to six cents.
“We should not have increased the property tax levy. I would restructure taxes to lower the overall tax burden. When I go door-to-door, people are hurting with the property taxes. I would encourage the county to drop that down to zero. It is not necessary and people are hurting,” Wood said.
Roper said the property tax increase was designated to pay for the annual lease on the mandated emergency radio lease, which had been signed by a previous county commission.
“We were dealt an unfunded mandate and the prior commission had taken out a lease. We raised the tax a nickel to cover that lease,” Roper said.
Roper added: “You can’t lower taxes and then expect prosperity to show up because then you are going to need debt. We have to make sure we have enough put away before we do that. We can’t just willy-nilly lower taxes.”
Another topic that came up was the jail and whether there is a need for more jail space.
“I don't think we are going to need a new jail in my lifetime. We are going to build out the futures area,” Roper said, referring to the basement of the jail.
Roper said right now the county is housing about 18-20 inmates that are Kansas City prisoners, and Kansas City pays the county a nightly housing fee for those prisoners.
“We have plenty of jail space right now,” Roper said, a comment in contradiction to her opinions expressed in the initial meeting with a county jail committee two summers ago.
Wood pointed out she had served on the jail committee that was named to study a proposal the county had proposed in the summer of 2014. That proposal had called for a $10-$21 million expansion of the current jail.
Wood said while on the committee, she exposed inflated population growth figures that had been put forth in making the jail expansion proposal. Exposing the numbers as being inflated helped the committee come to the recommendation that no immediate jail expansion was needed, she said.
The Twin Creeks proposed development, which will encompass an area located in a portion of Platte County, was mentioned as driving growth needs in the future.
“Our vision needs to be based on reality and not pie in the sky,” Wood said, remarking that while projections call for as many as 75,000 people coming into the Twin Creeks area, that projection is based on a buildout that could take 50 years.
“Twin Creeks is going to impact this county. We are working with Kansas City to protect natural resources in that area and see that the parks in that area are taken care of,” Roper said.
“Impact will be handled as it occurs. Nothing is going to happen overnight,” Roper added. “Saving money for our future is very important.”
Roper at several points throughout the forum stressed that the county has taken on no new debt in her time as commissioner.
“We have not taken out any new debt on our roads. We have stayed within our budget,” she said. She said the county has put $500,000 away for addition of beds in the “futures” area of the Platte County Jail.
Wood said she agreed with the practice of paying cash and said that when the community center bonds are paid off in 2021 “that will help us be financially secure as a county.”
Roper also talked up Platte County’s ranking in one study as being “number one for quality of life in Missouri. “We have wonderful health factors, wonderful health outcomes, and wonderful socio-economic factors.”
Wood countered by saying the high ranking is more a testament to “the people of Platte County.”
“I think too much credit is going to government and not enough to the people in Platte County. I think it (the high ranking) is mostly the people.”
Shiloh Springs, the county owned golf course, came up for discussion.
Wood said the golf course has cost taxpayers $10 million and “costs us at least a quarter million dollars each year. We need to see why the county is in the golf course business,” she added. “That quarter of a million dollars could be applied to something else, like future maintenance of parks.”
Wood also mentioned the county ignored DNR violations for wastewater issues at the golf course for several years.
“Shiloh has been getting DNR violations for nine years. We have been sticking our head in the sand. Only this year when (presiding commissioner) Ron Schieber brought this to our attention did the county deal with it,” she said of the county’s recent decision to connect the golf course to a public sewer system at a cost of more than $105,000.
Roper admitted that Shiloh “is a problem.”
“There’s no question Shiloh is a problem,” Roper said. “It is paid for. An option is to sell it. But that Tuesday night men’s league is one of the most active men’s leagues in the Kansas City metro area.”
The recent troubles of the Platte County treasurer’s office came up for discussion. Rob Willard, the county treasurer, admitted he did not follow proper procedures in wiring $48,200 when he fell for an email scam in late May. The county commission has indicated it will pursue filing a claim against the treasurer’s surety bond after he ignored a demand letter asking him to personally repay $20,000 that remains unrecovered from the scam. The question dealt with how the candidates would deal with fellow officeholders.
“The treasurer does not report to the commission,” Wood pointed out. “The voters will take care of that.”
Wood said when it comes to accountability, the bigger issue she sees is dealing with the issue of human life.
“When you have an HR director with multiple DWI (arrests), most recently with a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit and who was described by the arresting officer as ‘a danger to the community,’ that’s a problem,” she said about Mary Robinson, who is the department head for the HR office under the leadership of the county commission.
“That’s a problem when (she) continues to be employed by the county. And it’s the HR director who is in charge of vetting employees for the county. In real life you would call that a former employee,” Wood said.
Roper, in response to those topics, said of the treasurer’s situation that the county “will continue to work to try to recover the money for the taxpayers.”
As for the HR director, Roper said: “Our HR person is very effective. She was arrested and currently serving probation and that is something she is living through. She is still a very effective HR director. I invite you all to meet her and talk to her.”
Platte County voters will decide the outcome of the Republican primary for first district commissioner at the Tuesday, Aug. 2 primary. The winner will have a clear path to the office, as there are no Democrat candidates seeking the position.