November 3, 2013

Township resident questions use of tax money to clear trees, build wall

Greg Massey has lived in the Minneha Township pretty much all his life.

Greg Massey has lived in the Minneha Township pretty much all his life.

He doesn’t understand why some of his tax money is going to clear trees and build a retaining wall along expensive developments on Central Avenue west of Andover.

Massey, who lives on East 24th Street North, says the projects, estimated to cost several hundred thousand dollars, won’t benefit many of the township’s roughly 5,000 residents.

“Why are taxpayer funds being spent on what would appear to be a homeowners association project?” said Massey, whose father served as clerk and treasurer of the township. “It seems like a special interest deal.”

Massey said he called Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, whose District 1 includes Minneha Township. A few other county residents called or e-mailed The Eagle about the project, questioning the use of funds. They did not live in the district.

The Eagle asked several state and county offices whether the township could use tax dollars to clear the trees and build the wall. The offices said they were not involved in the issue and couldn’t offer comment.

Don Gragg, trustee of the township and a former county commissioner, said the homeowners association deeded the easement along Central to the township. Gragg lives on East Saint Cloud near where the wall will be built.

“As long as it’s in a public right of way, we can use” tax money to clear trees and build the wall, he said.

“That land is in the name of Minneha Township,” he said.

The trees also have been declared a fire hazard.

Gragg said Crestview Improvement District generates most of the township’s money. He said the township spends about $200,000 a year on average for roads in the Sunset Highlands Improvement District “but we only get about $20,000 to $30,000 in taxes from there. If it wasn’t for Crestview, those people wouldn’t get anything. They’ve had a pretty good free lunch. Anytime we do something at Crestview, somebody shoots at us.”

Gragg told The Eagle recently that the township was using money it gets from gasoline, or motor fuel, taxes to pay to clear a shelter row of trees. That was after the county bowed out of spending about $47,000 to clear the trees.

When the county changed course, Gragg said the township would pay the bill. It also will pay to build the wall. The cost of the wall is estimated to be about $100,000 without engineering expenses.

The wall will begin at the entrance of St. Andrews Place and go east toward 143rd Street East about 150 feet east of the street that turns into Turnberry.

Gragg said he believes the township is using taxpayer money properly.

Massey disagrees.

The township has claimed that it cannot afford to mow Seltzer Cemetery more than once or twice a year “but they can spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on something like this, to clear a tree row that may not be theirs to clear,” he said in an e-mail.

Unruh, the District 1 county commissioner, said he is staying out of the matter. Township officials such as Gragg are elected, he noted.

“My position is that the elected officials of the township need to make those decisions and proceed with them as they see fit. As an elected person, I don’t want to second guess what they’re doing,” Unruh said.

The Eagle also asked county legal staff about the matter. County Attorney Rich Euson said townships primarily are authorized to spend money on roads. Some, such as Minneha, also have cemeteries they oversee and maintain.

“I don't think that’s what they're doing here,” Euson said.

Euson referred The Eagle to the attorney general’s office.

“The Attorney General’s Office is not involved in this disputed mater (sic) and cannot provide a legal opinion on the questions you ask,” interim communications director Clint Blaes said in an e-mail to The Eagle after several requests for comment.

The Eagle also asked the Sedgwick County district attorney’s office about the township’s spending.

“Townships have a variety of powers. The propriety of the exercise of those powers is fact specific. It is not our position to speculate on the propriety of township actions or possible future actions,” spokesman Dan Dillon said in an e-mail Friday.

The Eagle also asked the Kansas Department of Revenue, which collects motor vehicle taxes.

“We have no involvement in policing how townships use such revenues distributed to them,” spokeswoman Jeannine Koranda said.

Earlier, County Manager William Buchanan had signed off on the county spending the money to remove the trees.

Questioning by County Commissioner Richard Ranzau caused Buchanan to reconsider. Ranzau said he didn’t understand why the county would spend money to take care of trees that were on private property.

A letter from Gary Curmode, fire chief for Sedgwick County Fire District 1, said the trees, many of them fallen from an April 2012 tornado, posed a fire hazard.

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