Overland Park mayoral candidates talk crime, climate and COVID ahead of general election

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — With the general election less than a month away, FOX4 is working to help Johnson County voters get a better idea where candidates stand on issues impacting residents in the metro.

FOX4 sent out election questionnaires to candidates in more than 50 races in the county 

After beating out local attorney Clay Norkey and city councilmember Faris Farassati in a four-way primary, Mike Czinege and Curt Skoog are going head-to-head in hopes of becoming the next mayor of Overland Park.

The winner of the general election will take over the role from current Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach, who has served in the position since 2005.

Here’s a look at what the candidates had to say: 

Q: As the pandemic continues, how do you feel the city should handle health and safety protocols going forward? Would you support the city issuing a mask mandate or any other health orders beyond what has been recommended by the county health department? Please explain why or why not.

Czinege: The COVID pandemic has touched many lives:  loved ones have been lost, businesses have been lost, and many have been affected with mental health issues. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the health care workers that have persevered through the pandemic.

Public policy should be the least restrictive to bring about the desired outcome, weighing risk and benefit ratio. Vaccine availability for the vulnerable should be the priority.  All individuals should consult with their healthcare professional and evaluate their risk factors and make an informed decision.  Those that have had COVID, and now have natural immunity have a stronger and longer lasting immunity to the disease.

I am against mask and vaccine mandates, and lockdowns. Individuals should make informed decisions in their best interests based on their health risks, and it should be an individual’s choice.

The best way to ensure your health and the health of your loved ones is to do your own research and become knowledgeable on COVID, treatments, preventative measures, and vaccines.  As with anything in life, especially something as complex and controversial as COVID, there are multiple views and recommendations for prevention, treatment, and recovery. Early treatment, especially for those at high risk is critical.  

Curt Skoog Overland Park Mayoral candidate

Skoog: As mayor, I will use every tool at my disposal to make sure residents who want a vaccine are able to get one. On city council, I have encouraged the public to take advantage of this free life saving vaccine so our kids can remain in school and our businesses can stay open. It’s important that our local leaders don’t participate in the spreading of misinformation or sow doubt when it comes to public health measures.

Overland Park does not have its own health department, therefore we follow the guidance of the Johnson County Health Department on best practices. At this time, I see no need for any mandates beyond those that the county has already put in place.

Q:  According to data from Overland Park Police, there has been an increase in aggravated assaults, vandalism and theft in the last year. If elected, what plans do you have to improve public safety?

Czinege: The increase in crime in 2020 is not just a one-year event.  According to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, there has been a 37% increase in violent crime and a 36% increase in property crime in Overland Park from 2016 through 2020.  Addressing the rising crime requires a multifaceted approach.

First, we need to restore the police force to at least the staffing levels prior to the last reduction in force in order to increase neighborhood patrols as a deterrent.  The population has grown and the ratio of population to law enforcement has declined.  We need to ensure we compensate and train law enforcement adequately to attract and retain the best possible resources.  I would conduct a comprehensive compensation and training benchmarking study.

Second, I would review with the OP Police Department and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department the crime statistics to determine the patterns of crimes, locations, times, and conditions associated with each category of crime to determine what type of preventative measures could be developed. 

Third, crime doesn’t just begin and end at Overland Park’s city limits.  I would meet with other Johnson County mayors and the Johnson County Sheriff’s office to encourage a cross-jurisdictional effort to blunt the rising crime statistics in our regional area.

Prioritizing law enforcement in our city, and working cooperatively with our residents and neighboring jurisdictions will be a cornerstone of my efforts to achieve an efficient and effective strategy to control and reduce the occurrence of crime in Overland Park.

Skoog: The increase in crime isn’t just an Overland Park issue, it’s a statewide issue. Between 2019 and 2020, violent crime in Kansas rose by 9.3%,  even though the state lost 30,000 residents over the same time period. Meanwhile, in Overland Park, the increase in violent crime, primarily due to domestic violence, was nearly half that of the state even as our population grew. Overall, the rise of Overland Park’s crime index has been far lower than surrounding areas.

On the city council, I have been a steadfast supporter of our public safety departments. Just this year I voted to approve the addition of 26 Officers and Staff to the Police Department. My 16 year proven commitment to keeping the residents of Overland Park safe will continue as Mayor.

Q: What changes, if any, would you like to see in the city budget?

Mike Czinege Overland Park Mayoral candidate

Czinege: I would like to see much more transparency in the city budget and how it is communicated to the residents.  Each year the budget should be built from the bottom up.  It should start with essential services, like fire protection, law enforcement, and road maintenance. After all essential services are included, then the discretionary services should be prioritized, and debated to determine if they should be added, reduced, or eliminated.

I do not believe OP City Council needed to pass a 10% mill levy increase to add the Public Safety resources requested.  If the additional Public Safety resources were determined to be required then they should have been part of essential services, and not presented to residents as the services driving the tax increase. 

There are plenty of line items that should have been considered discretionary spending and removed before a tax increase.  The city council should have presented the discretionary services as the items driving the tax increase.  As an example, if you set aside for a moment the Public Safety line item (where all the additional law enforcement and mental health resources are included) to get a better view of the drivers in the budget, the remaining 2022 budget is still 8.9% higher than the 2021 estimated spend and 31% higher than the 2020 actual budget.  

There are $5M[illion] for LED lights and a $3M[illion] contingency in the budget, among other truly discretionary line items. This is just one example of how the current city leadership manufactures the budget to present a false narrative to “sell” a tax increase, rather than being transparent and honest with residents. I will work to restore integrity to the process.

Skoog: Crafting the city budget is a year-long process that is focused on the priorities set by Overland Park residents.  It includes input from public hearings, public processes, city departments and other community stakeholders. This year we have been able to fund the creation of a Behavioral Health Unit within the Police Department to assist with those residents with mental health issues, additional firefighters to staff the new fire station, continued park improvements, and infrastructure upgrades.  All while maintaining the lowest property tax rate in the county and the state.

In preparation for the 2022 budget I gained council support to create the Infrastructure Advisory Group.  They will review Overland Park approaches to building and maintaining city streets.  I look forward to reviewing their recommendations concerning options to utilizing chip-seal on residential streets. 

In the future, I would like to see the city do more to facilitate the construction of more diverse housing options like townhomes, condos and smaller starter homes. As mayor, I’ll work to provide more housing options, so our police, firefighters and teachers can afford to live in the community that they serve.

Q: In your opinion, what responsibility do the city leaders have in addressing climate change? What initiatives would you support to improve environmental sustainability?

Czinege: There are a number of initiatives OP could begin to improve sustainability.  First, we need to better plan and develop land in the city.  Parts of the city have already been over-developed and have caused significant water run-off and flooding issues.  Creek banks have eroded and have caused property damage to private and commercial property.  We need to develop plans to remediate what has already been done. Then, we need to better assess potential water issues with future development as less and less ground saturation is possible with the encroaching concrete and asphalt from construction.

Second, we should encourage all new commercial buildings to follow levels of LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) sustainable building standards to reduce energy consumption and improve water usage. Third, we should continuously look for effective applications of improving technologies to take advantage of new opportunities to reduce city energy usage, whether through lighting, fuel, transportation or other evolving technologies.

Skoog: One of the main reasons I’m running for mayor is to make Overland Park a place where our children and grandchildren will want to live. Part of that means addressing climate change at a local level to create a more healthy, prosperous and resilient community. As a board member of the Mid-America Regional Council and a member of Climate Action KC, I participated in the regional discussions that resulted in a Regional Climate Action Plan.  It addresses climate change at a local level while also saving taxpayer money.

In Overland Park, the first step toward addressing the regional climate action plan was taken with the adoption of the Infrastructure Advisory Group.  The group’s purpose is to review how Overland Park builds and maintains its streets.  Included is a review of how stormwater runoff is addressed which is the most significant climate impact facing Overland Park.

 In the past few years I have supported energy efficiency projects including street light conversions to LED, facility upgrades, a pilot program to have new homes solar and EV ready,  and updating building codes.

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