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This November, voters in the Johnson County election will elect four candidates to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners, which oversees a budget of $1.45 billion and about 30 county departments, ranging from emergency services to public transit.
Though county elections draw fewer voters to the polls than high-profile national and state races, county government plays a significant role in the lives of Johnson County residents, managing services like wastewater, the sheriff’s department and libraries.
Local government experts spoke with The Beacon to explain the structure of Johnson County government, where it spends most of its taxpayer dollars and what decisions the soon-to-be-elected officials will be tasked with over their four-year terms.
The Johnson County Commission creates guidelines for county government
Johnson County voters elect a total of seven county commissioners: one for each of the six districts, plus one commission chairperson who represents the entire county.
In 2022, its chairperson is up for election, as well as the commissioners from Districts 1, 4 and 5. These districts encompass northeast and central Johnson County, including most of Overland Park, Leawood and Prairie Village.
The chairperson does not hold veto power, but does set the agenda and serve as a mouthpiece for the county government, said Hannes Zacharias, a professor in local government management at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration. He was Johnson County’s appointed manager, or chief executive, for nine years.
“It was designed as a way to give that person the same sort of political gravitas as the other countywide elected officials, those being the county district attorney and the county sheriff,” Zacharias said.
The commission as a whole appoints the county manager, a position currently held by Penny Postoak Ferguson. The manager in turn appoints the treasurer, register of deeds and clerk. In other counties, including Clay County, Missouri, and Leavenworth County, Kansas, these positions are elected by the voters, but Johnson County created a new charter in 2000 that assigned this duty to the manager.
The county manager also presents the budget, which must be approved by the County Commission every year.
The County Commission directly oversees five county departments that are established by Kansas state law, Zacharias said. Those are the county library, parks and recreation, mental health, developmental supports and the airport commission. The county manager oversees most of the other departments.
What does the county oversee?
The Johnson County budget is more than three times as large as Jackson County, Missouri’s, despite both counties having a similar population. The largest budget item is wastewater management, Zacharias said, followed by the sheriff’s department.
Former Johnson County commissioner and Prairie Village mayor Ron Shaffer predicts that wastewater improvement projects will require significant decisions from the County Commission over the next few years.
Johnson County recently completed its Tomahawk Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility, which cost almost $335 million. The county has also started working on improvements to the Nelson Wastewater Treatment Facility, which will not be completed until 2029.
“When you turn your water on in the sink, it goes somewhere,” Shaffer said. “That’s a big deal. We have to take care of it. That’s our responsibility. And that costs a certain amount of money.”
The County Commission also serves as the Board of Public Health for Johnson County, so potential decisions about mask mandates and other public health measures will fall to the commissioners elected this year.
Johnson County saw its first monkeypox case this week, and as news of a particularly contagious new COVID-19 variant emerges, public health decisions could be impactful in the coming months.
Tax assessment is also under the purview of Johnson County government, though Zacharias said that this is more strictly regulated by the state government in Kansas than in Missouri. Johnson County is responsible for collecting property taxes within its boundaries, which are then distributed to taxing jurisdictions, including school districts and cities. About 15% of the property taxes collected in Johnson County fund the county government.
Chairperson represents the county to the rest of the area
Beyond setting the agenda and serving as a mouthpiece for the county government, the commission chairperson is responsible for representing Johnson County in the region’s network of local governments.
“The county commission chair is a spokesperson to the region,” Zacharias said. “How does Johnson County fit within a 2.5 million population crossing two states?”
For example, he said that despite the Kansas City International Airport being located in and governed by Kansas City, Missouri, the majority of people who use the airport live in Johnson County.
Other examples include public transportation that crosses state and county lines, or possible assistance that Kansas City could need when it hosts the World Cup in 2026.
Shaffer said stormwater is another issue that crosses county and state lines — particularly along State Line Road. If stormwater is contaminated in Johnson County, that contaminated stormwater could flow into Wyandotte or Jackson County, which requires a coordinated response from all affected counties. A county commission chairperson would represent Johnson County in such a situation.
List of Johnson County Commission candidates in 2022
The Johnson County election for county commissioner is nonpartisan, so the primary election on Aug. 2 will select the top two candidates for each district who will continue to the Nov. 8 general election.
The only primary elections are for the commission chairperson, which has four candidates, and the District 5 county commissioner, which has three candidates. Districts 1 and 4 have two candidates each, so no primary will take place.
The deadline to register for the primary election in Kansas is July 12, 2022.
Michael L. Ashcraft
Stephanie Suzanne Berland
Incumbents are italicized.