Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman is here to chat with readers. If you have any questions for her, send them in. Her election opponent Frank Male was here yesterday and his chat is available at http://www2.ljworld.com/chats/2012/oct/17/frank-male/
Let's get started. Nancy, tell us a little about yourself and why you're seeking re-election to the commission.
Thanks--so glad to get started!
I was born and raised in Lawrence, went to Lawrence schools, and graduated from KU with a nursing degree. I lived in Nashville, TN while my husband, Scott, completed his surgical residency. While there, I received a Master in Divinity degree and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1997. Scott and I have raised our family in Douglas County. We live on a 100+ acre farm in Grant Township (Juniper Hill Farm) where we produce brome and alfalfa hay and have several acres of certified organic vegetables in production. Our son, Scotty who manages the farm, leases approx. 400 more acres for brome and alfalfa.
I was elected to the County Commission in 2008 and have loved serving the citizens of Douglas County these past four years. I consider this my full time job--and spend most days and often weekends and evenings with county-related work on my calendar, which I enjoy. During my time on the commission I've concentrated on providing core county services but have also contributed to initiatives aimed at increasing economic development for our large and small towns and have also been a strong proponent for folks in need--helping secure our SRS office for years to come when Gov. Brownback sought to close it, fighting for better funding for other caring agencies while so many of our folks are in need. Those are a couple of the most notable efforts over the last four years and would continue with those priorities over the next four years.
You have supported the conservation of our natural and cultural resources here in Douglas County. Why have you done that and what do you hope to achieve with this effort?
Conservation of our natural and cultural resources has both quality of life aspects as well as economic development aspects--both are important for our future. Not all economic development has to do with manufacturing or traditional industry. An important new emphasis for our local economy is heritage tourism--the fastest growing sector of tourism in the nation. As the lead county in our federally designated Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area, it's important for Douglas County to build its inventory of historic sites, stories, museum offerings, recreational and educational destinations--and then tie them all together to entice visitors to come to our region, enjoy our history, eat at our restaurants, stay at our hotels, all adding to our local revenue.
Of course, the other side of this kind of conservation effort is that it's good for our environment, helps secure our region's ability to continue in the increasingly important agricultural industry (including local food production), and ensures that the next generation of Douglas County citizens and their children will have a great place to live and prosper. Lots more to say...but we better move on to the next question!
• Economic development officials in Lawrence have said there is a significant need for more industrial locations along Interstate 70. At various times, sites near the Lawrence Municipal Airport and near the Lecompton interchange northwest of Lawrence have been pursued for industrial development. Do you think either of those areas is appropriate for industrial development in the near term?
I've been very active in that economic development conversation and have personally participated in helping to identify and zone over 750 acres of new industrial land--some of that at the Lawrence Municipal Airport and on I-70 in the northwest corridor/Farmer's Turnpike.
The land beyond the airport, specifically a watershed coming from the north toward North Lawrence, however, is not appropriate for large-scale development because of flooding and stormwater issues--which are extraordinarily expensive to mitigate (at taxpayer expense!) and are still at risk given the long history of extensive and even tragic flood events throughout Lawrence's history--most recently in 1951 (without levees) and 1993 (with levees). The agricultural land there is a natural flood barrier (at no taxpayer expense!) for the 3,000 residents who live in North Lawrence. Loss of the prime agricultural soil for development of warehousing and industry around the airport when there are hundreds of other acres set aside around the county that don't have prime soil or stormwater concerns is another reason to locate elsewhere.
Along I-70 on the Farmer's Turnpike there are some very suitable acres. One particular industrial zoning proposal in that area I voted against--but not because I thought it shouldn't be industrial. Rather, I thought the island annexation the city commissioners and my colleagues on the county commission were pursuing was the wrong way to go. I supported an annexation agreement for that land--allowing it to be industrial, but with county control--thus gaining the support of the neighbors for the zoning, making litigation unnecessary, and keeping the land on the market for industrial prospects. Instead, island annexation won the day. The parcel is now unavailable to the market as it is tied up in its second year of litigation, waiting for a possible hearing at the KS Supreme Court--at taxpayer expense.
What's the biggest difference between you and your challenger? How would the direction of the County Commission change if he's elected?
Mr. Male's campaign motto is "There IS a difference." And I have to say, I agree with him.
I suspect a major change folks would see in the county commission should Frank Male win is a shift completely to economic development efforts on a grand scale--including an attempt to increase the local sales tax in order to raise and spend millions more dollars to entice large-scale manufacturing to locate here. He may complain about the cost of my Heritage Conservation Fund, but the many millions more dollars he desires to spend in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce make my relatively small but quite successful programs pale in comparison. I don't disagree that we need to keep working hard at growing our local economy, but I don't think we can make that the county's primary focus--or increasing expense.
I also know that Mr. Male would represent a major shift in the county's emphasis on the "human infrastructure" of local government--those ways in which we help fund social service agencies that help folks stay in their homes and off the streets, help homeless folks find shelter and food, help folks receiving SRS case management keep those services local, and so on. Mr. Male has said he would defund the county's increased commitment to the Lawrence Community Shelter and I suspect that would only be the first of many cuts in funding for folks in need.
On the whole, the majority of the County Commission would change from a Democratic, progressive majority that is pushing back against Gov. Brownback's agenda to a conservative Republican majority, not so likely to push back and, in fact, may cooperate.
Are you willing to continue using county funds to keep open a local office for Kansas SRS, now the Department for Children and Families?
Although I would be willing to use County funds to keep that important office open, that won't be necessary. After the County negotiated a contract and initial payment to keep Gov. Brownback from closing the office last year, (and thanks go to our City Commissioners for their participation with the County in that action!), the KS legislature corrected the situation by fully funding our Douglas County SRS office (now Dept for Children and Families) now and for the future. It's important to know that that was no small issue--because that office serves over 10,000 Douglas County citizens who otherwise were told they could go to KC or Topeka if they wanted to receive help. Unacceptable.
Considering that arts funding at the state level is up in the air, what role — if any — should the county take in funding or promoting the arts?
We know that the Arts are an important part of our community--both for quality of life, but also for economic development benefits. I'm particularly excited by what's happening in East Lawrence with the new Warehousing Arts District--the renovated Poehler building with its beautiful and affordable apartments, new galleries and artists' work space, business incubator and more. Suddenly what once was a blighted area is now full of life and economic promise! The county has a record of supporting the arts already--through Van Go (creating jobs for youth) and Theatre Lawrence (helping secure a million dollar grant). I suspect the arts, cultural and natural heritage with Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area, improved bike and pedestrian trails/parks and open space recreation building on local/regional and national tourism are all inter-related and creative ways we'll be investing in--not only improving our quality of life, but building new and important economic engines that leverage both private and public investments on a larger and larger scale.
Explain how and why the county decided to by the land by the jail.
That's a good question because a lot of folks presume we bought that land simply to make the homeless shelter relocation happen. While I'm glad our purchase of that property helped Lawrence Community Shelter move along in its relocation--and I look forward to the ribbon cutting on their new facility with its much improved space for more folks and more programs--it's important to know the county bought the 40 acres by the jail in preparation for its new consolidated Public Works facility--an initiative that had been expected for a number of years.
While the county did take a look at other parcels in Douglas County--all of them rural and without necessary infrastructure available, the land by the jail was judged to be well-suited for the new Public Works facility, had the advantage of infrastructure already in place--water, sewer, electricity and even some roads, has proximity to major transportation, including being especially well located when the SLT eventually comes through (especially important for those large Public Works trucks that move in and around the county). The purchase price was fair market, the county had money set aside specifically for the purchase, so we all enthusiastically agreed to move forward with the purchase and are looking forward to serving Douglas County with a great facility there. I'm on the architectural selection committee for that Public Works facility--and am very pleased with the progress we're making toward that much needed and very important project.
That concludes today's chat. Thanks to Commissioner Thellman and all those who submitted questions. Advance voting currently is under way. For information about times and locations see http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2012/oct/15/registration-ends-tuesday-voting-starts-wednesday/