The Shawnee City Council probably expected Tony Lauer to speak against a tax-increment-financing project slated for the western part of the suburban city. Lauer is a frequent guest at Shawnee City Hall, often making open-records requests and questioning City Council members' actions.
At the council's August 12 meeting, Lauer analyzed a TIF project - 222 townhomes at Johnson Drive and Kansas Highway 7 - that would allow a developer to skim property taxes otherwise due to the city, the school district and the county. Lauer's conclusion: The amount of revenue that the project may generate for the city wouldn't make up for the property taxes going to Leawood developer Hickok-Dible Companies.
Lauer also argued that the TIF would shortchange the De Soto School District, formally known as USD 232.
"We often talk about the state and how the state makes decisions that impact our budgets," Lauer told the Shawnee City Council. "I would ask you to consider that when you reflect on your decision this evening. Your decision is going to adversely, or could adversely, impact USD 232."
Then something funny happened - something that neither the Shawnee City Council nor the developer's attorney expected.
Mitch Powers approached the podium, claiming to speak for himself as a resident of Shawnee. But Powers is the president of the De Soto School District Board of Education. He said he did his own analysis of the TIF and figured the project would divert $4.1 million in revenue from the district over the next 20 years. He also told the council that a consultant predicted the housing project would add 50 students to the school district.
New students cost the district $10,000 apiece each year to educate.
The TIF, Powers said, would adversely affect the school district by $14 million over 20 years.
"As a resident and someone who is a taxpayer in the district, as someone who obviously has a vested interest in the success of the district, I'm not comfortable at all with pulling or adding a $14 million budgetary load on the USD 232 school district at this time," Powers said.
Proponents of the plan sprang into action, knowing that in Johnson County, the idea of allowing development to burden school districts does not sit well with the public.
Andrew Nave, executive director of the Shawnee Economic Development Council, told the City Council that he had met with De Soto School District Superintendent Doug Sumner, whom he claimed supported the project.
"I'm a little surprised that there's a perspective that the school district is against this," Nave said.
Curt Petersen, a Polsinelli lawyer representing the developer, told the council that he wouldn't speak for Sumner, but then did just about that.
"The leadership of the school district, which is sophisticated, it's not like they've never seen this before ... they decided as they weighed this all out, decided this is what's best for the school district," Petersen said.
That statement prompted Powers to return to the podium.
"The only thing I can say is, this evening at 5:30, he [Sumner] said they did not provide their support," Powers said. "They did not oppose it. They did not provide their backing of the proposal, and it should not come as a surprise to the individuals here."
So who's telling the truth?
The Pitch called Sumner's office to see who said what and got a return call from district spokesman Alvie Cater.
Cater told The Pitch that the prospect of adding students to the district without the benefit of tax revenue puts the school district in a difficult position.
"We told them we would not oppose the project, but to say that we did not have concerns is not accurate," Cater said.
The De Soto School District is particularly sensitive to property-tax income. Unlike the Blue Valley School District and the Shawnee Mission School District, there is not as much commercial development (and, in turn, commercial tax revenue) in the De Soto district. That means De Soto schools depend on property taxes from homeowners for much of the budget.
School districts can ask to increase the mill levy (the rate at which property tax is charged) up to a point, according to state law. But the De Soto district has reached its limit. An increase in the mill levy in the De Soto district generates $370,000 in additional revenue, while a more developed district such as Shawnee Mission can raise more than $3 million from the same rate increase.
"That's why I think projects of this nature are more amplified for us," Cater told The Pitch. "We would prefer to have that funding, that property tax, sooner rather than later."
Not that it mattered to the Shawnee City Council - it passed the TIF plan by a 6-2 vote.