Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2001

Growth to remain issue for new county commission

January 7, 2001


In the past four years, Douglas County commissioners have struggled with the South Lawrence Trafficway, realignment of U.S. Highway 59 and rural development.

Those are among the issues Dean Nieder and Tom Taul, both stepping down from the commission Monday, are reflecting on as their commission careers come to a close.

Nieder and Taul, both elected in 1996, will turn over their seats to Commissioners-elect Bob Johnson and Jere McElhaney, who will be sworn in 9 a.m. Monday at the county courthouse, 11th and Massachusetts streets.

While serving the county, Taul and Nieder, both Republicans, often found themselves at odds with fellow Commissioner Charles Jones, the lone Democrat, especially on growth and development issues in the county's unincorporated areas.

"Sure, we've had our ups and downs, but I think the board represents the diverse feelings about growth in the county," Jones said. "Even though we may disagree, I think we pull back together in difficult situations."


Looking back, Nieder and Taul said dealing with the failed SLT was the toughest and most disappointing issue during their four-year tenures.

Completion of the trafficway's eastern leg was one of Nieder's priorities during his election campaign. When he came on board, then-Commissioner Mark Buhler told Nieder that he and Taul would get the road through.

"At the time, it seemed like an achievable goal," Nieder said. "It didn't happen."

With the trafficway on the back burner, commissioners last summer started working with Lawrence city officials to improve 31st Street between Iowa Street and Noria Road, as a local arterial roadway. Taul said he thinks the city and county are moving in the right direction on the project.

"We'll have our fate in our own hands and we'll be able to handle the project ourselves," he said.

For Taul, a former fair board member, construction of the new $1.2 million arena at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds was one of his proudest moments. He said it was owing to a large group of volunteers who worked together to make it happen.

"It's become an integral part of our community's activities," he said.

Holding line on taxes

Because property valuations continue to rise, the outgoing commissioners saw mill levies drop during their term.

The 1997 budget was $25.7 million, up 3.55 percent from the previous year, which was funded by a tax levy of 25.17 mills. The 2001 levy is 24.308 mills, which funds a $37.8 million budget. That is slightly lower than the 2000 levy of 24.618 mills. A mill is $1 per $1,000 in assessed valuation.

"I'm pleased we were able to hold the mill levy in check," Nieder said. "I'm not saying we couldn't have done better."

Incoming commissioners won't have an easy job before them. They will oversee the county's new home occupation regulations, revised several times since their August approval; possibly hire additional zoning and codes employees to enforce those rules; and decide whether the county should build a septic waste treatment facility.

Though McElhaney expects some opposition against the home occupation rules, he said the process should be fairly smooth.

"I've talked with a lot of people about it, and a good majority of the people are for it and don't see a problem with it just so the county doesn't get out of control with it," he said.

Regarding septic waste, Johnson said he would like to explore the issue further with city officials in Lawrence, Eudora and Baldwin.

"We need a system that pays for itself, and the people who use it are the ones who should pay for it," he said.

In October, the commissioners postponed working with the city of Eudora on a new septic waste storage tank and pump because they disagreed on how to pay for the improvements.

Changing of the guard

During the next four years, Johnson and McElhaney said that they didn't see any major changes being implemented, but they will strive for improvements.

"One thing I'll do is tend to look at county's decisions from a more businesslike sense of judgment to decide when to do things and how to do them," said Johnson, a retired CEO of Charlton Manley, a Lawrence insurance company.

McElhaney pointed out the past commissions laid the groundwork for an efficient county government.

"I tell you, the commission we have is a well-oiled machine," he said. "Dean and Tom have done a really good job."

The outgoing commissioners also left their mark on Jones.

Jones said he learned about farm economics from Taul, a farm veterinarian by trade, and about the people of Douglas County from Nieder, who is a third-generation county resident.

"You can't go through everything and not have a sense of comradeship," Jones said. "I think we are friends, and I'm going to miss them."

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