Commissioner Nancy Thellman (D)
Eudora News and Information – www.eudorareporter.com
One of the many important races on the November ballot this year is for County Commissioner. In the race for the District 2 Commissioner seat, Democratic incumbent Nancy Thellman is vying for her second term aginst challenger Frank Male.
We wanted to spotlight both of the candidates as we prepare for next weeks election. Both candidates were sent the exact same questions and Commissioner Thellman’s responses are printed below unedited.
Please tell us about your background and experience.
I was born and raised in Lawrence, graduated from K.U. with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing, and I worked at KU Medical Center. I earned a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University and served as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church and Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence. I was elected as Douglas County Commissioner in 2008 and am running for re-election to that office. I’m married to Scott Thellman, MD, who was born and raised in Overland Park, KS. After finishing his surgical residency at Vanderbilt University, Scott and I chose to come back to Kansas to raise our family in Douglas County, setting up his practice here in 1994 (Lawrence Plastic Surgery, PA). In 1999, we moved from west Lawrence to the far northeast corner of the county, Grant Township. We survived a very steep learning curve with that move to a 135 year old farm and we happily own and operate Juniper Hill Farms, LLC, a working family farm, managed by our oldest son, which produces approximately 400 acres of brome and native hay and alfalfa, and several acres of certified organic vegetables. Our kids are Scotty, currently at Iowa State University working on an Agriculture/Business degree; Katy, currently at University of Colorado in pre-nursing; and Connor, a senior at Free State High School.
My community and public service activities include: special advocate for Just Food, Douglas County’s food bank; board member, Destination Management, Inc (Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau and Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area); assisting with East Lawrence’s Village to Village; former board member, Douglas County Red Cross; former event chair, Stepping Out Against Breast Cancer Dance; former board member, Parkinson’s Support Group; Clergy member, Board of Trustees, Northern Kansas Presbytery; member, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce; Commission liaison to Economic Development Partners Board; Commission liaison to Public Works facility selection committee.
What will you do as a County Commissioner to help bring jobs to Eudora?
Based on my work in job creation and economic development in Eudora, I gained the endorsement of Eudora Mayor Scott Hopson for my re-election. Here’s why: in 2011 I worked closely with Eudora’s economic development director, Collin Bielser, to establish the E-Community program, an outreach of the state’s rural development program, Network Kansas. E-Community provides gap funding through a revolving loan fund for small business start-ups and expansions in communities of fewer than 50,000 population. Collin and I helped form a partnership between Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton, specifically targeting these communities for job creation. In short order we raised $60,000 for gap funding our first year and now $100,000 in our second year. That kind of seed money for new, small businesses is very hard to come by these days, so it represents a lot of hard work by the local business leadership of Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton. It also represents my strong commitment to job creation for ALL of our Douglas County communities, not just Lawrence. A total of 20 new jobs are a result of E-Community’s first year, including the expanded Amanda’s Dance Academy (three jobs) in Eudora, and the new Kansas Belle Dinner Train coming to Baldwin City (17 jobs) this fall. I expect there will be more good applications in 2013, along with new jobs!
Of course, I’ve also been a partner in the more traditional, larger scale economic development efforts that usually come out of Lawrence. Most recently, I helped with the formation of the new Joint Economic Development Council, a new advisory body that will help shape how we do economic development in the future. The original partners in this new council included the City of Lawrence, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, Douglas County, and the University of Kansas. Being acutely aware that Eudora and Baldwin City are frequently underrepresented in these really important discussions, I advocated for two extra seats on the council–one for Eudora’s city administrator, and one for Baldwin City’s administrator. Ensuring that Eudora and Baldwin City are represented on this council is critical, since both communities have unique assets to offer for future growth in Douglas County.
Many people perceive “Douglas County” as Lawrence. While the majority of the county population is in Lawrence, how will you work to serve the smaller communities such as Eudora, Baldwin City and Lecompton?
As the County Commissioner representing the Second District–which includes all of Eudora and Baldwin City as well as the eastern third of Lawrence–I’m very much aware of the lack of representation of our smaller communities when it comes to the larger picture of economic development efforts and future growth planning. As such, I helped create the E-Community program (described in detail in question #2) and gained representation for both Eudora and Baldwin City on the new Joint Economic Development Council.
Along with that, I created the county’s Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation Program–a program designed specifically to look to the small communities and unincorporated areas of Douglas County where many historical gems are located. This important initiative marks what should be a decades-long effort to identify, increase and improve Douglas County’s inventory of historic places and natural assets. Some may wonder why we should focus on our history when there are so many other more pressing problems to deal with, like the economy. But it’s precisely for economic reasons that we should invest in local historic preservation and visitor-friendly assets because we are the lead county in the federally designated Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area. Eudora, Baldwin City, Vinland and Lecompton benefitted from this program most of all. I work hard to make sure all areas of Douglas County are represented, not just Lawrence.
Another example of a countywide initiative is the Douglas County Food Policy Council–which has representation from Eudora and Baldwin City–particularly as it relates to their school systems. I recently attended an important event at Eudora High School, celebrating Kansas Food Day. Secretary of Agriculture Rodman and other state-level representatives were there, along with members of the Eudora School Board and Douglas County’s Local Food Policy Council. I’m so impressed with the Eudora School District’s vocational training facility, especially in culinary arts, as well as its commitment to the Farm to School program. This is a national initiative which the Eudora School District has clearly embraced. Through this program and other countywide efforts of the Douglas County Food Policy Council, we can expect more and more activity on the local food production front, an important economic engine for both Eudora and Douglas County’s future.
During the current calendar year, there have been two applications for sand pit operations near Eudora. Both have been in proximity to the Eudora water wells. What is your opinion on sand pit operations near Eudora?
Since this issue will soon come before the Douglas County Commission, I will first say that I have not made up my mind about this second sand pit application. Commissioners must keep an open mind when proposals are presented, hear all sides of the issues, and then come to a decision after a fair public hearing.
With that said, a primary concern in the Eudora sand pit conversation is the preservation of the city’s water wells that serve as the only public water source for the City of Eudora. Because Eudora’s water supply is ground water, not surface water, Eudora’s water treatment plant is a basic facility because ground water doesn’t require the level of treatment that surface water does. Ground water is usually very clean due to the filtration of water through the thick layer of sand it travels through before storage in wells. Surface water (river or reservoir water) includes various levels of contaminants, as it is exposed to chemicals like agricultural herbicides and pesticides contained in storm water runoff, and algae and bacteria that come with the water’s exposure to air and soil. Surface water requires more complex treatment, which the Eudora water plant is not capable of doing currently without significant and expensive improvements to the facility. So it’s a reasonable concern for the City of Eudora to consider the possibility of ground water contamination by activities of a sand pit in the area. Of particular interest, the proposed Penny sand pit would be almost 400 acres–ultimately the largest sand pit in Kansas. Another item for consideration in these sand pit discussions is to balance the worth of natural resources, the prime top soil that would be lost to future agricultural use (all Class II soils), versus the need for mined sand in the area necessary for future construction projects, which relates to future growth and job creation.
It’s important to note that the first sand pit proposal was pulled by the applicant, not for water well issues as much as downstream impacts which the County’s engineering consultant identified; a substantial concern for the integrity of a large downstream County bridge should the Kansas River migrate east and cut through the pit, thus undermining the bridge pilings. Though various options were proposed by the consultant as a possible solution to the river’s migration, they were extremely expensive (estimated at millions of dollars). The applicant opted not to pursue that sand pit when all the issues were fully evaluated.
Douglas County is one of the most historic regions in the state. Tell us what your position is on protecting and promoting the historical significance of Douglas County.
Preserving and promoting Douglas County history is not only a quality of life issue, but also an economic development issue. Douglas County is the lead county in Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, which is a 41-county National Parks designation that links together common historical themes between northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri (especially pre-Civil War history and the Border War between free and slave state factions). The office for this important National Heritage Area is located in Lawrence at the newly renovated Carnegie building, headed by Executive Director Fred Conboy. It is important to note that heritage tourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry in our nation today–something that we in Douglas County should capitalize on! According to our state’s tourism department, fully 1in 9 jobs in Kansas are related to tourism, representing $5 billion in revenues, once all the tourism-related services are calculated (hotels/restaurants/services), and well over $2 billion in related wages.
As a Douglas County Commissioner, it makes sense to me to try to capture our share of this fast-growing heritage tourism both because it improves our own quality of life, and also because it will increase local revenues. That’s one very important reason I initiated the Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation Program, a very competitive grant program that touches every corner of Douglas County including Eudora, Baldwin City, Lecompton, Vinland and the rural areas in between. Using .005% of the County’s budget annually since 2011, the Heritage Conservation Fund has already helped Eudora shore up its Community Museum and Historical Society; funded engineering and planning for renovation work on a historic building in downtown Eudora; placed over 200 acres of Eudora’s prime agricultural soil in a permanent conservation easement (Hamilton Conservation Easement); helped with historic registry of Eudora’s endangered B’Nai Israel Cemetery; and completed a new survey of hundreds of Eudora’s historic resources–some previously known, some only just uncovered. Outside Eudora, the Heritage Conservation Fund helped bring the Kansas Belle Dinner Train to Baldwin City (17 jobs and 8,000 new visitors projected!); started significant renovations on Baldwin City’s Pearson Home near Black Jack Battlefield, now a National Historic Landmark; funded major restoration work at Vinland’s historic Presbyterian Church; and helped begin restoration of the historic Clearfield School. On the northwest side, the fund helped move a historic structure to the domain of Lecompton’s Constitution Hall, also a National Historic Landmark; funded an important addition to the Clinton Museum; funded a major permanent exhibition at Watkins Museum in Lawrence; and more. In the two short years that the Heritage Fund has been in existence, a total of 17 projects across Douglas County–some very small, and some very large–have been funded, projects which otherwise would not likely have been accomplished.
Of course, every time we invest in the preservation of our own history and our own stories, we also serve future generations by helping them know where they’ve come from and why they are who they are. There’s not a monetary value that can be placed on that quality of life issue, but for a lot of folks who value community and family roots, history and its physical assets like historic structures, preserving our history is priceless.
While you cannot control what cities and school districts charge in property taxes, what is your position on the tax rates in Douglas County?
While nobody likes to pay taxes, I can say that Douglas County’s property taxes are in line with other peer counties (Riley, Wyandotte, Shawnee and Sedgwick counties) and are actually lower than some neighboring counties (like Jefferson, and Osage counties). When you isolate Douglas County’s share of your total property tax bill, you’ll find it’s about one quarter of your bill (35.77 mills). Your city-related property tax makes up another quarter, and the school district represents about half of the bill. The total property tax bill varies according to special levies in each district or community, so these are only approximate descriptions. Of the 105 counties in the state of Kansas, Douglas County’s mill levy rate is 92nd lowest.
Our population size and our valuations allow for good, comprehensive county services at a comparatively low county mill levy rate. County property taxes ensure that citizens’ have comprehensive and excellent core county services, including: safe and well maintained roads and bridges; public safety through a well-staffed and well-equipped Sheriff’s Department; county jail; juvenile detention system; judicial/court system; state mandated mental health and public health services; properly run elections and tax collection; land planning, registration, zoning and regulations; code enforcement; and economic development initiatives for job creation. Service levels are maintained even as county government is impacted by some of the same economic forces the general public feels–increasing health insurance costs, increasing fuel costs, and increasing costs to purchase goods and services.
In the past four years, the Douglas County Commission raised local property taxes once, by 2.9 mills. Commissioner Flory, Commissioner Gaughan and I voted unanimously for 2.3 of the 2.9 mill increase, and the remaining 0.6 mill increase was on a 2-1 vote (Commissioner Gaughan and me). Here’s what that 0.6 mills represents for the average citizen of Douglas County: approximately $12 per year. This is what Douglas County gains: 0.3 mills (.005% of the total county budget) funds a line item in our budget for economic development projects. An example is the nearly $400,000 we spent on infrastructure so that the new Berry Plastics warehouse and print facility could be built. By making that project happen, the Douglas County Commission ensured the retention of Berry Plastic’s 800 employees for many years to come. This fund also makes the E-Community job creation program possible for our smaller cities like Eudora and Baldwin City. The other 0.3 mills (again, .005% of the total county budget) funds the Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation Program, many of the benefits and details of which I’ve explained in question #5.
My challenger says these are unnecessary expenditures in tough economic times. The facts are that these programs have already been successful in a short period of time, moving us forward in job creation (20 jobs so far, thanks to the E-Community and Heritage funds in Eudora and Baldwin City) and increasing our local revenues by tapping into the growing heritage tourism industry (8,000 new visitors expected in Baldwin City thanks to the Heritage and E-Community fund). Aside from the revenue possibilities, these programs also improve our communities’ physical assets and quality of life, thus making Eudora, Baldwin City, Lecompton and Lawrence not only good places to visit but to move to, start businesses and invest in, live, raise a family in and retire to. I think the Economic Development Fund and the Heritage Conservation Fund are justifiable programs and, in fact, great programs for our county’s future health and prosperity. Again, the actual cost of these two programs for the average Douglas County household is approximately $12 per year.
What do you think is the most important issue that will face the Douglas County Commission in the next year?
I believe one of the most important issues facing the Douglas County Commission this year will be consideration of the sand pit application currently pending, for all of the reasons that I explained in question #4.
What other issues are important to you that you plan on fighting for or against as a member of the Commission?
In the same way that I helped lead the movement to keep our local SRS office open when Gov. Brownback attempted to shut it down, I’ll continue to advocate on behalf of those 10,000 Douglas County clients who use that office every year, as well as advocate for comprehensive social services for all Douglas County residents. At the same time we’re investing hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in economic development and job creation, it’s also imperative that local government invest in our “human infrastructure” by funding agencies which help keep Douglas County folks going in tough times by providing access to services such as food, shelter, health care, mental health counseling, job training and housing.
What do you see as the biggest difference between you and your opponent?
I bring a broader perspective to the job of county commissioner. My opponent has done an admirable job of building a small business and has years of service with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. This has been a significant focus of his time for many years. I, too, have been involved when my husband, and then my son, established businesses of their own in Lawrence from the ground up, and know the hard work and challenges faced by small businesses, especially in a tough economic climate. Understanding the needs of the small businesses in our county and doing our best to serve them is undeniably important. But I also feel that my experience as a nurse, pastor, and now as a commissioner has given me a broader view of what it takes to serve the interests of all the citizens of our county, not just the business owners.
I understand the need for the services provided by the social agencies in our area, because I’ve worked with them both before and during my time as commissioner. I know how to work with, and sometimes fight with, our state government to see that Douglas County is well represented and gets the services we deserve. I have moved our county forward in economic development with such efforts as the bioscience incubator building, rezoning of over 700 acres of land for industrial development, the Berry Plastics warehouse expansion by establishing an economic development fund, by working with the Chamber of Commerce and other agencies to make these projects a reality. I have pored over engineering documents to understand why a recently proposed sand pit development near the Kansas River had potential ramifications to the river’s path that could have cost the county millions of dollars. I have worked with the leaders of our community involved with tourism, arts, health care, local agriculture, transportation, construction and other areas of our economy important to our current lives and our future as a community to see what county government can do to make these areas stronger.
Why should voters vote for you in the election?
For all of the reasons I have discussed in the above questions. While I may have answered these questions in more detail than requested (and if you’ve made it to the end, then you’re really an interested citizen and I thank you!), as a sitting commissioner I know these questions require more than a cursory answer if they are to be informative to those I represent. County Commission work is complex work–it’s not just maintaining roads and bridges–and it takes a long time to learn the workings of county government and public processes. I’m fortunate to be able to say that being a Douglas County Commissioner is my only job and that it is my full time job. I have dedicated myself to being your Douglas County Commissioner for as many hours as it takes to get the job done, including evenings and, oftentimes, weekends. It is work that I really enjoy and I am eager, and would be honored, to continue serving Douglas Countians for another four years.
The County Commissioner race, along with national, state and a local ballot issue will be decided on Tuesday November 6. Polls will be open 7AM to 7PM. You can also cast your ballot in advance this week at the Douglas County Courthouse at 11th and Massachusetts in Lawrence between 8AM and 7 PM. Additionally, The County Clerks office will have advance voting available in Eudora this Saturday from 9AM to 3PM at the Eudora Rec Center.