Members of the Johnson County League of Women Voters on Wednesday got the chance to hear two of the three candidates for County Commission Chair share their views on the biggest challenges facing JoCo. Patricia Lightner, a conservative former state legislator, informed organizers a few hours before the forum that she would not be participating.
That left incumbent Ed Eilert and District 1 Commissioner Ed Peterson to hash out the difference in their views of county government’s responsibilities before an audience of several dozen at Johnson County Community College.
Peterson assumed a more aggressive position throughout the evening, characterizing the Board of County Commissioners under Eilert’s leadership as “reluctant to deal with the serious issues that face us.” He said Eilert’s desire to keep the county’s property tax rate steady came at the expense of taking care of the county’s amenities like parks and the library system, which he said have been floundering.
Eilert countered that he was proud of having delivered on his commitment to keeping the county living within its means even in the depths of the Great Recession.
Here are a few of the issues the candidates discussed:
- Advocating for public schools in the county. Both candidates agreed that maintaining an excellent reputation for Johnson County schools was key and expressed deep concerns with the current school funding situation. Eilert said that two upcoming court decisions may help clarify the funding situation, but that “when push comes to shove, we may have to go to the legislature and ask for the authority to raise the funds we need.” Peterson said school financing was the most serious issue the county community faced, and that he said the role of County Chair as organizing a strong group of local advocates for changes to allow the schools to be properly financed. “It is an anomaly that in a place like this that values education as much as we do we can’t bring the full force of our resources to bear to fully fund the schools,” he said.
- A new county courthouse. There was no disagreement that something has to be done to provide a modern court facility, but Peterson and Eilert differed on what the best solution would be – and how funding for the project should be approved. Peterson said a new courthouse was important to ensure the county’s justice system worked properly, and that he feels it is the Board of County Commissioner’s job to vote on a plan and approve financing for it. Eilert countered that with a project of that size — costs are estimated at up to $200 million for a completely new courthouse — the taxpayers of the county should have a chance to vote on the issue.
- Expanding the library system. Peterson categorized the current state of the library system as lacking, and suggested that it has languished during Eilert’s tenure. “And if you don’t think there’s a problem, try going to borrow a current best seller and see if you don’t have to wait seven weeks,” he said. Eilert noted that during the Great Recession, the Library Board had “made the responsible decision” to reduce hours to live within the available budget. He said expansion of the library system would need a commitment from the public, and that any plan for expansion should be approved by the voters.
Eilert, Peterson and Lightner will be on the August 5 primary ballot, with the top to vote-getters moving on to the November general election.