City spending is a major reason why a pair of candidates are challenging incumbent Grain Valley Mayor Mike Todd in Tuesday’s election.
Ward 2 alderman Chuck Johnston is taking on the incumbent Mike Todd for a third time after losing to Todd in 2010 and 2012. This year, newcomer Barbara J. Kountzman, a former member of the city’s Public Works Committee, is joining the race for mayor.
Only one Grain Valley alderman race is being contested. In Ward 2, incumbent Yolanda West is facing former alderman Nancy Totton. Incumbents Dale Arnold (Ward 1) and Bob Headley (Ward 3) are running unopposed, meaning they will retain their seats on the Board of Aldermen.
Johnston and Kountzman both say the city is spending too much money and building up too much debt and not getting anything in return.
“I’m dissatisfied with the direction the city is headed under the current administration,” Johnston, who works as a claims manager for OOIDA in Grain Valley, said of why he is running again. “The current spending policies can only lead us to higher taxes or, even worse, bankruptcy.”
Kountzman agrees, saying that is why she entered the race as well.
“The main reason is the out-of-control spending that continues to raise taxes – sales taxes and property taxes,” said Kountzman, who is retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a former EPA employee. “I couldn’t sit back any longer and not address it.”
Much of the spending has come in the form of infrastructure improvements, mainly the new Interstate 70 interchange at Main Street/Buckner Tarsney Road. More improvements are coming as the city works with the Missouri Department of Transportation to widen Main Street/Buckner Tarsney Road and improve it and install sidewalks and biking trails south to Eagles Parkway under a comprehensive plan.
Todd defends the spending for the improvements and says that is why he is the right person to continue that work.
“In one word – experience. I believe over the last four years that I have shown that I have what it takes to get jobs done in Grain Valley,” Todd said. “It could be bringing new business to town, seeing our city through major interchange improvements, or seeing that our roads get plowed when it snows. Over those four years I have demonstrated that I can work with city employees, businesses, and residents in a positive manner to make sure we do what is best for Grain Valley. Coming into a seat like the mayor without some prior experience in this pivotal time for Grain Valley as we have more improvements and as we attract new business could be detrimental to our town.”
Todd says attracting business is the most important next step in that plan.
“Attracting business to the improved interchange area is the first issue we need to continue working strong on,” said Todd, a special education teacher in the Blue Springs School District. “We have already shown some progress in this area, but we need to continue working in order to make sure we are filling these areas up with the type of businesses that the residents of Grain Valley want in their hometown.
“(We need to) continue to refinance and pay off debt, by growing our tax base with new businesses. By reducing our debt load we would be able to lower our debt tax levy, which is currently over 90 cents. Reducing our debt load is the only way to lower taxes, which our citizens need, without reducing the services that they need.”
Johnston and Kountzman counter that too much has been spent and that it is not attracting enough business for the amount. Johnston said much of the spending is unneeded, though he would work to attract business.
“I would work to reduce unnecessary spending to help rebuild our reserves, which can help us regain our AA credit rating that has been lowered in the past two years,” Johnston said, adding that, if elected, he would “direct city staff in finding cost savings measures rather than spending every dollar available.
“I don’t believe we are currently spending our economic development funds wisely. We need to find a more effective resource to invest those funds. One of the most difficult things we have to combat is the high tax levy. It is very difficult to attract businesses to Grain Valley when our bordering cities Blue Springs and Oak Grove are both less than half our levy.”
Kountzman said, if elected, she would also make the city budget a priority.
“One of the biggest problems we have is how in debt we are,” said Kountzman, who served nearly two years on the city’s Public Works Committee until she was relieved last year. “You don’t give out TIFs (tax increment financing incentives) and give developers a 23-year pass on taxes. I don’t disagree with TIFs, but make it three or five years at the most.
“I have a lot more budget managing experience from my work and I know a lot about public works. I’ve learned to do more with less. I would go in and scrub the budget and see where we can save money, and put money back where it belongs. We’re not getting the value for what we’re spending now.”
Kountzman also said she would look at annexing land on the northeast border of the city and possibly eventually getting another interchange at I-70 and Lefholz Road just east of the city border.
WARD 2 RACE
Totton, a former alderman who lost to Johnston last year, said she was encouraged by residents of Ward 2 to run again against West. Totton, who had been appointed to fill a Ward 2 seat vacated by Linda Johnson in October 2010, defeated Johnston in 2011 but lost to him two years later.
Totton said she wants to make local government more personal and get community members involved.
“I worked for the people the whole time I was on the board and continued that even when I wasn’t on the board,” Totton said. “I talk to them all the time, and I think that is what the community is lacking. … We need to get people involved.”
West, who ran unopposed in 2012, said she would like to continue her focus on the budget process and reducing debt for the city and recruiting new businesses to pay down the debt for the recent infrastructure improvements.
“I’m the only female on the board and I think I bring a different perspective to it,” said West, who owns and runs Valley Tax Service downtown after working many years in the health care business. “And I’ve spent 30-some years in the corporate world, and that experience is what sets me apart from Nancy.”
West said her focus is to open new ways into Grain Valley and that would help bring business to the city.
“We’re unable to grow much if we just have one entrance into the city,” she said. “We need another. It’s essential for our growth because we’re essentially landlocked now.
“We can’t just focus on downtown, we need to look at the city as a whole. Of course, we need more jobs, but you need to create more space to look attractive to businesses. … Our current footprint is only about 4 square miles. We don’t have the space to grow. Hopefully we can grow in all four directions.”
West said that while she was happy with the improvements at I-70, she would also be a proponent of bringing commuter rail to Grain Valley.