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Archive for Friday, September 16, 2005

KU explores Johnson County tax increase

September 16, 2005

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Kansas University is exploring the possibility of using a Johnson County-only property tax to bankroll a major expansion of its Edwards Campus in Overland Park.

Under the plan, voters would be asked to pass a 2-mill property tax increase, raising about $14 million annually.

The money would be used to finance a $55 million plan that includes building a new library, more classrooms, faculty offices, research space and a school of applied science and technology.

The project would set the stage for the Edwards Campus enrollment increasing to 6,000 students from 2,100.

"The ultimate goal is to be a campus that serves more fully the work-force development needs of Johnson County," said Robert Clark, vice chancellor of the Edwards Campus. "To do that, we have to build out the rest of campus."

But the proposal, Clark said, "is not just a matter of building buildings. This is an economic development proposition."

With enough support, the Edwards Campus could become a much-needed, major research facility for the Kansas City metropolitan area.

"There's really not a research presence here," he said. "What happens when you have a research presence ... is that you can grow businesses as a result of that research, and you can retain businesses."

Clark shared the concept last week with a group of Johnson County mayors. Reactions were mixed.

Lenexa Mayor Mike Boehm called it a "marvelous" example of foresight, while Carl Gerlach - mayor of the county's largest city, Overland Park - took a wait-and-see approach.

"I don't know. It's so new," he said. "There's a lot of questions left out there."

Clark said he wouldn't push the proposal without the support of the county's policymakers.

The proposal also will have to get past KU, the Kansas Board of Regents and the Legislature, after which it would be subject to a countywide vote.

House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said he doubted the Legislature would do much to derail the plan.

"Obviously, the Edwards Campus is a growing, beneficial presence in Johnson County," Mays said. "As long as voters have the opportunity to vote on it, I would have no objections."

He added: "I won't go so far as to say it would be an easy bill to pass, but I think there's a fair chance it would."

The more difficult task, said Rep. Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe, may come with winning over Johnson County's tax-weary voters to go along.

"I think we may be getting into a situation where KU may want to be careful about putting on a vote for a tax increase," he said.

The Edwards Campus plan coincides with a recent increase in Johnson County property taxes. And on Sept. 27, the county's voters will decide whether to renew a quarter-cent sales tax for schools and cities.

But the proposal is hardly on a fast track, said Regents president and chief executive officer Reggie Robinson.

"I don't think there is a proposal, per se," Robinson said, noting that the Clark-led discussions were still in the early stages of gauging support among business and legislative leaders.

"Before this reaches the Regents, we would expect it to be fully thought through," Robinson said. "We wouldn't want to wander down the road of unintended consequences."

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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