Stieben: Leavenworth County Commissioners go to Washington

Mike Stieben, Leavenworth County Commission, Fifth District, and Vicky Kaaz, Leavenworth County Commission, Second District, stand in front of the U.S. Department of Transportation building in Washington, D.C. The commissioners were visiting legislators and others to discuss roads, infrastructure and other topics. Enlarge photo

August 8, 2019

Commissioner Kaaz from Leavenworth and myself representing the southern parts of Leavenworth County recently attended the Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma Leadership Day in our Washington, D.C.

The goal of the trip was to gather information, network, and determine which departments and which individuals within those departments could be most helpful to enable Leavenworth County to recover road and bridge funds due to the County by the federal government.

The office of Congressman Steve Watkins helped to expedite the process by arranging meetings with representatives of the Department of Transportation and the Department of Defense. The discussion at transportation centered on reclaiming revenues that are lost due to the use of county roads and infrastructure. Specific to the conversation was the fact that the number one user of the Kansas City International Airport (MCI) is Fort Leavenworth. Discussion centered on ways for the county to recover some of the usage for roads and especially the Missouri River bridge between Leavenworth and Platte County, Missouri.

The reality of bridge construction within the federal budget is that most funds are specifically allotted to projects that are on the interstate system or directly tie-in to an existing network. There are some limited funding options contained in BUILD funds that are appropriated periodically by Congress in specific appropriation bills on a yearly basis, with the possibility existing, that Congress, may approve major infrastructure improvement legislation in the next couple of years. Representatives of the department of transportation indicated that it is very important that local communities complete the planning phase for projects, working with the Kansas Department of Transportation, to make sure any projects are “shovel ready”, that is, projects that are ready to go can be given the highest level of priority for funding.

Following that we attended the actual conference at the White House which included a number of speakers and panels of speakers addressing issues that impact Leavenworth County local government.

There were approximately 125 local elected officials attending the conference to interact directly with representatives of the federal government.

The first panel discussion centered around disaster recovery. The panel consisted of Mark Harvey (inter-governmental affairs office), Ray Alexander (Corp of Engineers), Stan Gimont (housing) and Keith Turi (FEMA). These individuals discussed federal and state disaster response. This panel reflected on federal response to the massive increase in federal disasters during the past fiscal year, which have included floods, tornadoes, and wild fires.

This panel had direct linkage to our own F4 Tornado that impacted the Linwood area and there was some discussion related to debris removal and improvement of communication between federal, state and local governments.

Another panel centered on economic development, agriculture, and foreign trade. Members of this panel included John Melle (Assistant U.S. Trade Representative), Alex Latcham (Office of Political Affairs), Stephen Censky (rural development) and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

The panel reflected on the renegotiation of the NAFTA agreement to make it more worker friendly and to “bring it in to the 21st century”. Melle was one of the chief negotiators of the new agreement and he took time to answer questions about the economic growth that he projected the new agreement would bring to the economy. I was able to ask him a question about whether labor as a was being supportive of the new agreement? His answer was that labor was not exactly jumping on board with full support of the new approach but that they also were not actively opposing.

The final panel addressed the issue of infrastructure and the various proposals to invest in our updating our roads and bridges, water systems, rail lines, and ports that have been allowed to deteriorate over time because a lack of planning and care by the government.

The most important element for ensuring that funds are secured is make sure that projects have already been carefully planned and vetted by local government prior to fund requests being submitted.

Perhaps the most exciting thing to happen at the meeting was a special visit from Vice President Mike Pence.

He cited economic news that indicates that the unemployment rate among women and minorities is at the lowest point ever in the history of the United States. Pence also reviewed the budget and the hope for adoption of the modified NAFTA agreement and an infrastructure plan. He also took time to address some questions from the audience and invited each of us to attend a reception after the program.

The following day Commissioner Kaaz and I met with representatives of the Department of Defense. The discussion centered on the lack of a tax base in Leavenworth County with much of our land being exempted from taxes. The concept of PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) was discussed for occasions when the County provides services for which it is not reimbursed by the military for the use of our roads and bridges and other infrastructure.

It was determined that recovery for such expenses may be limited due to existing federal and state law with a few exceptions. One possible exception according to defense officials is the taxation of private entities and companies that are operating upon military bases.

The County Counselor is researching the law in Kansas on private entities since legislation that was adopted in the past provides for military enclave exception to taxation.

Another suggestion for recovery of monies for bridge construction was adoption of a toll to recoup money from military members and others who choose to reside within the state of Missouri but work or travel to or from Fort Leavenworth. Whether this would be practical or legal within Kansas is not clear, unclear, is whether Kansas residents could be exempted from such tolls, requiring only non-residents to pay.

Overall the connections and information should be a solid foundation for our community as we look to the future needs of our community in relation to infrastructure. Making a commitment to work for the community in terms of finding out what resources are available and how our community can benefit from existing state and federal services and economic development programs as well as rural development to maintain our rural character is important for the future of Tonganoxie and all of rural southern Leavenworth County.

It was a very productive trip and I’m hopeful that we can see some very positive progress.

— Stieben represents the Fifth District on the Leavenworth County Commission.

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