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Property value increases, a crowded courthouse, and the need for more commissioners

Commissioner Kevin Cook shares his priorities at Safe Streets meeting
(WIBW)
Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 5:48 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Safe Streets Coalition honored local, state, and federal law enforcement for Operation Frontier Justice at their online meeting Wednesday. Typically, they recognize a Champion of Character, however, they chose to celebrate the hard work of law enforcement in the arrest of 258 individuals accused of criminal activity in the community.

Attendees also heard from the Topeka Police Department about violent crime being down, and the efforts by Shawnee County Sheriff’s Department to get meth off the streets.

Guest speaker Commissioner Kevin Cook covered multiple topics during his talk. He mentioned how the Lake Shawnee swim beach closed in 2018, but it will re-open this year as part of Adventure Cove. He also discussed road construction and new bike trail plans as well as the planned renovation of the Oakland Community Center and Pool.

Another topic of his talk: property taxes. Cook says property tax accounts for 80% of Shawnee County funding. He says the mill levy hasn’t changed since 2013. The housing crisis has driven up property values, according to him. Cook told attendees that he expects the current commission to work to keep the mill levy steady, however, it will need to be increased at some time in the future. He says its a “balance of taxes and services”. Cook believes some budget cuts may be necessary. He encouraged Shawnee County residents to participate in the budget hearings coming up in July.

Additionally, he talked about riverfront development as well as the overcrowded Courthouse. Cook says there have been 4 courthouses in the county’s history; the most recent one built-in 1965. At the time of its construction, the top 2 floors served as the jail while the basement housed the sheriff’s office. Where once the county had 2 judicial judges, they now must fit in 15; and Cook says the DA’s office is out of space. Commissioners must consider various options--do they renovate, build, or find space to lease? Do they move only administrative offices or the courtrooms? How do they pay for it? Cook says they have been looking at options but have not found the right fit yet.

Cook closed out his talk by advocating that the county needs to consider a new form of government which would include 2 more commissioners and a county manager. Cook says the current 3 commissioners aren’t enough for a county this size with the business they have to conduct. He pointed out that they cannot talk to one another legally without forming a quorum. So, he says they are limited in being able to discuss things or brainstorm without conducting an official, public meeting. His argument is that having 5 commissioners will actually allow them to better conduct county business. Douglas County is also considering a similar change, according to Cook.

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