Lynne Hermansen
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In two separate votes Thursday, the Board of County Commissioners approved $15 million in funding to improve road infrastructure and a fire station for hazardous material suppression capability for the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant land.
Kansas Governor Laura Kelly announced earlier this month Japan’s Panasonic Corp would be building a multimillion dollar mega-factory to produce electric vehicle batteries on the Northwest section of land the U.S. Army has been cleaning up.
It is the largest economic development package of taxpayer-funded incentives the state has offered a private business worth $829 million over 10 years.
State officials expect the new plant to provide 4,000 jobs and 16,500 temporary construction jobs.
Charlotte O’Hara, commissioner, was the dissenting vote on both motions.
Michael Ashcraft, commissioner, dissented on the funds for the new fire station.
Jay Leipzig, planning commissioner, said the request was for the Panasonic Energy Plant in collaboration with the Kansas Department of Transportation and Kansas Department of Commerce to mitigate traffic concerns by the plant’s estimated “aggressive” opening time of July 2024.
“KDOT is seeking county cooperation,”he said.
Leipzig said it was a 25 percent match to the $47 million total cost as part of a collaborative effort with county, state and the City of DeSoto that also includes interchange improvements of Evening Star, Lexington and Edgerton roads.
Maury Thompson, deputy county manager, said the funds are not from current sales and property taxes but a county-wide support fund that came from the General Fund. He proposed a slightly modified proposal from the original agenda item because of the Fire Station.
“$7.5 million won’t be sufficient,”Thompson said. “We have to have other contributing partners.”
O’Hara said they are federal funds and if they weren’t from sales or property taxes where did the money come from.
Thompson said the county-wide support fund which has particular restrictions.
“It is claimed as lost revenue and in the General Fund Reserve,”he said.
O’Hara said federal money comes from taxpayers.
“After the station is built there will be a need for significant investment of fire equipment,”she said. “Where is that money coming from. There is no basis for funding the fire district. $1.4 billion. They have resources to pay for this. We gave them the land. Boy are we babes in the woods.”
O’Hara said she appreciated the Kansas City’s Star article on the questionable deal between the State and Panasonic and read parts of it out loud.
“There are no guarantees,”she said. “I think this is way too premature. So many issues here. We are spending all this county money.”
O’Hara said she didn’t approve of how the State can find money for a multitude of county projects but had to make 69 Highway a toll Highway to fund improvements for it.
Thompson said O’Hata was correct about the fire station and it would need more money for equipment, but approving the item would give the board further flexibility.
“We know there has to be additional funding sources,”he said. “This is a mutual agreement financial plan.”
Ed Eilert, county chair, said tax incentives are real however the project was a pay as you go plan.
“If [Panasonic] is not invested the incentives are adjusted downwards to actual performance,”he said. “If elements are not completed incentives are reduced accordingly. I think we need to support DeSoto and the state with this effort. It could pay big dividends down the road.”
O’Hara said Garmin in Olathe was a homegrown company continuing to bring in jobs without the help of state money.
“Lithium is a volatile, flammable chemical,”she said. “All the Ts need crossed and Is dotted before another vote. Isnt $1.4 billion enough. If we use the funds for other infrastructure costs could lower the mill levy by 1.7 instead of asking everyone in the county to pay 1.7 mill more.”
Eilert said Garmin was a great example of long term benefits to a county, but Olathe had given them tax incentives.
Jeff Meyers, commissioner, said the Panasonic jobs would also include construction jobs.
“This development will encourage greater benefits,”he said.
Becky Fast, commissioner, said the area around the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant was two lane roads and would at some point have to be developed.
“Whatever business goes in would have had to improve the roads,”she said. “This was going to happen, but now we are reducing taxes by the intercoopwrative agreement.”
County staff said it was very rare for the state to improve local roads and a four lane road was needed at K-10 South to 103rd Street to Lexington Road with possible roundabouts.
Fast said would the new fire station help decrease fire response times for the City of DeSoto or just serve Panasonic.
Thompson said it would be a benefit to all in the area as an additional investment.
Shirley Allenbrand, commissioner, said the county had been faced with road and infrastructure issues out there and now they were going in front of the problem.
“We can’t go back,”she said. “We need a fire station and the safety of roads is detrimental to those who live there.”
Ashcraft said there were two issues: roads and a fire station.
“Fast hit the issue related to roads squarely,”he said. “It makes sense to me. The opportunity to leverage state funds is actually a relief for the short and long term.”
Ashcraft said however the fire station was a textbook fallacy of TIFs and should have been considered for the TIF.
“Asking county tax payers to pony up should be part of the Northwest Consolidated Services,”he said.
Ashcraft said it was a precarious position of funding and supporting with little control.
O’Hara said they were talking about tax incentives when they don’t even have guaranteed job and salary requirements for the Panasonic project.
“Are the roads primarily in DeSoto,”she said. “Normally we do a joint funding to develop. What’s DeSoto putting in. This is a new precedence.”
Leipzig said it was 2.2 miles from DeSoto and 5.5 miles from the TIF district.
O’Hara said she wanted to know why it wasn’t being funded by the TIF district.
“20 years and not one penny of tax money and they want us to put in another $15 million,”she said. “It seems there is enough from the TIF. What happens if we put this all in and it falls apart because we have nothing in writing.”
Ashcraft said he shared O’Hara’s sensitivity on TIFs and the intent of TIFs is to help brown field development.
“I don’t know of a better or worse example,”he said. “Will this benefit Johnson County long term. Can it support road developments.”
Thompson said there are many other components to infrastructure improvements that need made and the City of DeSoto was investing.
“It’s not unusual for a fire station to be supported by taxpayers,”he said. “We are gaining more control of fire services.”
Ashcraft said it should have been of part of the initial TIF development.