OPINION

County tackles numerous issues on many fronts

Mike Stieben
Mike Stieben

Leavenworth County government has been busy on many fronts over the last few weeks – passage of the FY 2022 budget, economic development changes, discussion of solar and wind energy regulations, road and bridge projects and grants, a district court decision on the Kaw Valley sand pit proposal and health department rules for public schools.

The County Commission adopted a FY 2022 budget on Aug. 25. The $67 million budget for county government for general operation and all funds, included a mill levy reduction, changes in economic development spending, and a 4% raise for most county employees.

The budget did not include the amounts appropriated by the federal government, and given to Leavenworth County for COVID-19 response to the pandemic in the 2021 fiscal year. These funds included the Cares Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). These funds were accounted for in the budget document but kept separate from the general budget to help make sure that all regulations related to how these funds could be spent were strictly followed.

Cares Act funds distributed by the county amounted to $19 million, much of which was distributed by other local governments such as the cities. Cares Act money was distributed on a strict schedule and all locally appropriated money had to be spent by a certain date.

The federal government appropriated an additional $16 million to the county for pandemic response in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). These are monies that can only be expended on certain projects and programs as designated by the federal government. The initial distribution of approximately $8 million is currently being held in escrow, and in one year an additional $8 million will be distributed to Leavenworth County. The county is currently developing the process by which decisions will be made on the prioritization of these funds, based on the plan requirements.

As a part of the FY 2022 budget the county portion of the mill levy was reduced by one-quarter mill in an effort to further reduce taxes. I proposed that the county salary hike of 4% be reduced to 3% to give taxpayers an additional one-quarter mill reduction, but my fellow commissioners did not agree and so the reduction stands.

Economic development changes

One important part of the FY 2022 budget is proposed changes to the way economic development money is distributed. As a result, the budget reduces appropriation to the Leavenworth County Port Authority and the Leavenworth County Development Corporation. The county will retain $160,000 of the $309,000 appropriated to economic development to establish an economic development office at the county level which will be directly overseen by the County Commission. This change was intended to allow for enhanced economic development as all of the various economic development partners begin to work together in new ways. This decision was made after a task force was assigned the opportunity to work on new visions for future economic development that bring new accountability to the process.

Solar and wind

The Leavenworth County Board of County Commissioners held a work session on solar and wind energy to determine if regulation was required. It was discussed to adopt basic regulation on solar farms that would require the industry to follow county health and safety requirements to protect the public and cover the expectations of all parties involved, including decommissioning expenses and public access.

The commission did not make a decision on wind regulation at this time. My personal view, after visiting with many constituents on this issue, is that small household generators are likely acceptable, but our community is not interested in seeing any large commercial generators being located here. That being said, many experts agree that the wind speeds in this part of Kansas do not justify large scale wind farms at this time. Please contact me if you have a view on this issue. I am very interested to hear your opinion before this comes up again.

Roads and bridges

Public Works Director Bill Noll has been very busy writing grant applications and a number of those have been successful in directing funding to road projects that will enhance safety in accident prone areas.

Some upcoming KDOT projects include additional work at K-32 and 158th to add turn lanes and hill leveling. The hill leveling at K16 and Parallel Road (near Helen’s Hilltop) is scheduled to begin fall 2022. Road projects driven by the county include: 158th road improvement north of K-32 to Metropolitan to include shoulder widening and improvements to turn access, 155th Street in Basehor, and shoulder improvements on Tonganoxie Road between Tonganoxie and Leavenworth.

When additional infrastructure monies become available paving of CR 30 to Dempsey Road and north, additional phases of dust abatement to tie-in sections currently left unpaved, increased attention to long-term bridge and culvert replacement, and development of a transportation plan are all on the table for future consideration.

Kaw Valley sand pit

On Sept. 1, Judge King handed down a ruling that supported the requirement that Kaw Valley first rebuild the road along the proposed haul route before operating 85 to 110 trucks on the road daily for their sand mining operation. The judge cited in his ruling the engineering reports suggesting that the road would not support the expected truck traffic without major work. The company has 30 days to initiate an appeal so stay tuned. My constituents, especially those from the south end of the county, continue to have concerns about this proposal.

Health department rules

I issued a letter to a constituent that has been widely circulated and which I posted on social media. The letter references the opinion of the Kansas attorney general that school districts make their own “homerule” decisions on COVID-19 mitigation rules and masking requirements. The intent of the letter was to inform citizens that school board members have wide latitude in their decision making, and that our county does not have “mandates” rather only “recommendations” on mitigation rules.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me on any issues related to county government. My phone number is 913-775-2772 and my email address is Mstieben@leavenworthcounty.gov

Mike Stieben is a member of the Leavenworth County Commission.