Editor’s Note: Board of County Commissioners Chair Ed Eilert gave the State of the County Address during a luncheon on March 29. The majority of his remarks follow.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.
…2011 is important in more than one way. Recent census data reveals that on the basis of population, Johnson County is the largest county in the state of Kansas. For most in this room, the importance of our county as an economic driver for our state’s economy has been obvious for many years.
Now the population numbers also present an opportunity to further add support to the fact that Johnson County is a key to the future success of our state and the region. However, we should not become complacent with the belief that the fundamental community investments that have offered the opportunities that we enjoy today will always be present.
We need to recognize an ongoing commitment to educational opportunities, public safety issues, libraries and parks, services that provide assistance to those who have no other option, and effective job creation programs, all are necessities. Whether supported by public or private effort, all represent the foundation that will give to those who follow us the same opportunity for success that we were given.
For Kansas, it’s a historic year as we celebrate the 150th birthday of our state. Our beginnings as a state were shaped during a period of turmoil and the great Civil War, but those would not be the last challenges faced by the 34th state to join the union.
Pioneers moving across our state or settling within its boundaries did battle with Mother Nature on a regular basis, most notably the Dust Bowl years and then a manmade disaster called the Great Depression. In those years, just meeting the everyday challenges of living on the prairie were extrememly difficult, but through it all, Kansans preserved with a belief that success could be gained by a commitment to hard work in creating a brighter future.
Johnson County’s historic roots began in 1855 when the area was still a territory. Our county was created as one of the first 33 counties in what was to become the state of Kansas. Our county government was formed in 1857. The first county commission served a population of roughly 10,000 citizens. They also faced many challenges…
{Cue video of first county commission meeting}
…As the video implies in jest, and history reflects in reality, setting up the first government in Johnson County was a busy time. Commissioners established townships to attract new settlers, approved requests to build roads, licensed new businesses and set fees for ferries to cross streams. They reimbursed the Sheriff the sum of $1.20 to transport a prisoner 12 miles, and one commissioner received $2 for a one-day horse ride to conduct county business. Space at the Shawnee Hotel was rented for the first county offices.
The issues 154 years ago were different than the ones we are facing today, but it’s good to remember that the heritage of Kansas and Johnson County has been to reach for the stars and to meet head-on the difficult challenges.
That’s important in 2011. For the past couple of years, life for many of our residents hasn’t been easy during what has been called the Great Recession. Housing has slumped. Jobs have been lost. Meeting day-to-day needs has been challenging for far too many of our citizens, but throughout it all, Johnson County has persevered far better than some other counties in the nation.
Yet, the challenges we face are not insignificant. The 2012 projected budget expenses that exceed current revenues are $27 million. Those numbers will require $13 to $14 million in reduced spending and the projected use of $13 million in reserves and fund balances to eliminate the budget gap.
Those revenue shortfalls had been projected to exist through 2015, but the commission goal is to eliminate the projected deficit spending by the end of the 2014 budget year. A major unknown is shared revenue that is received from the state. A significant change in that revenue will only make our budget balancing job that much more difficult.
At the direction of the county commission, county staff has been engaged in a major program and service delivery prioritization effort. The results of that work will be of great benefit to the commission as we work through the 2012 budget and make decisions for future years. We have recently received the study of our organization structure and changes have been recommended that will assist in making our organization more efficient and lead to future savings.
We are in the process of retooling your county government; knowing that how we operate in the future will need to be different than today. We must revisit and if necessary, reinvent how our services are delivered. We will look for ways to build partnerships with our state and other local government units and our business community to provide economic opportunity, the tools for tomorrow’s success.
As with many governmental units, our workforce represents the largest part of our county budget. In the past three years, we have trimmed our workforce by about 5 percent through attrition and retirement. We also have reduced our past and current budgets by a combined $24 million with no significant impact on county services.
Absent a strong economic recovery, we are at the point where decisions about the size of our workforce and service levels provided will become much more difficult.
In the midst of change, our county employees will still have to conduct ongoing business: roads need to be improved, tax payments processed, vehicles registered, elections conducted, parks maintained, criminals arrested and prosecuted and the list goes on.
…We will continue to invest wisely in our community.
…The public projects are important, but your private sector investments drive our economy.
Each year the county continues to review the economic impact of real estate values. There may be light at the end of the tunnel.
Typically, when a turnaround begins, it starts with apartments. Today, we see evidence of that beginning. Apartments have seen an increase in rents, lower vacancies and lower capitalization rates causing values to increase.
The County Appraiser’s most recent reevaluation report reveals several things:
• 75 percent of homes in Johnson County will have a flat or slight decline in their appraised values. The decline however is less than in the past two years.
• New housing starts have bounced from the historic low in 2009 of 651 units to 843 in 2010.
• Some commercial sector values, such as office and industrial, also are showing some recovery.
It would be great news if we could say with certainty that the economic challenges we have been living with the last few years are behind us, but that’s not possible. What we can say is that we will continue to value our community’s important assets, such as our schools, libraries and parks, as a part of our basic foundation to provide the opportunity for our success.
There are two major projects in our county which will have a major impact on the success of our local and state economy – the BNSF Intermodal and the facilities and programs supported by the Johnson County Education Research Triangle sales tax passed in November in 2008.
The BNSF Intermodal project in Edgerton has started with surveying and site preparation work underway. Main construction of the intermodal project will mean an estimated 600 plus jobs, and after construction, the facility will provide additional future job opportunities when operations start.
Construction on the first phase of the logistics park is expected to start by the end of this year. The build out of this warehouse park complex is estimated to create more than 8,000 jobs when completed.
For the past two years, it has been my privilege to serve as the Chair of the Johnson County Education Research Triangle Authority, formed when the voters approved a one-eighth cent sales tax to support new facilities and programs in Johnson County in partnership with K-State University, KU Edwards campus, and KU Medical Center.
Those projects have moved from the drawing board to reality with the near completion of the K-State Facility in Olathe, the beginning of construction for the KU Edwards Campus building in Overland Park, and the KU Medical Center’s Cancer Clinical Trials Facility in Fairway.
The K-State Facility will be focused on food safety and animal health research as well as academic programs. KU Edwards will provide academic degrees in business, engineering, science and technology upon completion of a 75,000-square-foot building.
KU Medical Center’s Clinical Trials Facility will provide clinical trials in the constant search for new and more effective treatments of cancer and other diseases.
This public investment promises to be a significant driver of economic opportunities and jobs in the years ahead. These activities of our two major state universities, supported by local public investment, are unique anywhere in the United States and are sure to draw interest of related private sector businesses and investors.
As a direct result of the activities at the K-State Olathe Innovation Campus, an announcement was recently made that Abaxis, Inc., has signed a lease for the company’s first laboratory testing facility, which will provide veterinary services for animal health. They anticipate employing 100 workers in three years.
A task force of city economic development agencies is in the early formation stage to develop strategies to maximize the economic benefits of this important public investment. Marketed correctly, I believe the K-State Olathe Innovation Campus and KU Med’s Clinical Trials Center, supported by the academic programs at Edwards Campus and the training and retraining programs offered at Johnson County Community College, will provide excellent jobs for our citizens for decades to come.
One citizen-based activity that will conclude this year is the work of the Citizens Visioning Committee. This diverse group, which is made up of 36 members appointed by the Board of County Commissioners, has been working for more than a year in gathering information and ideas to be presented as a template for our future actions. They have been tasked with developing a vision for Johnson County over the next 10 to 20 years.
…If you would like to join the conversation regarding the county’s visioning process, please visit the Citizen Visioning Committee’s main website at www.jocovision2030.com.
…This year and in the months to come, Johnson County will navigate through changes and challenges by making adjustments as needed. We will be focused on promoting economic development, job growth, and sustainable prosperity that will keep the state of our county strong and vibrant.
We will take proactive steps to ensure our quality of life, maintain public safety, and work in partnership with our government and private partners in sharing a common goal to make Johnson County the ideal place to live, work and raise a family.
Just as pioneers sought promise in the Kansas Territory, today we are embarking on a new trail of change and opportunity. Our founding fathers and mothers believed in hard work, family and faith, and on August 25, 1855, they used those core values to create a new place called Johnson County. These men and women bravely came west to the heartland with little more than hope, determination, and a can-do spirit to fulfill their dreams and create new opportunities for success.
After 156 years, we must continue to build on that legacy so that future generations can view our time of stewardship as one of continuing to build for the future. But remember, the promise of tomorrow begins today with each one of us. So, it is our task to move this great county to greater levels of achievement.