Submitted by Greg Motley, President of Bourbon County Economic Development Council.
Last week I gave 10 reasons why our community is shrinking; next, I will address what can be done to stem the tide. None of these solutions are particularly easy; after all, we are fighting megatrends that are impacting most small towns in America.
Our most obvious need in Bourbon County/Fort Scott is quality housing. There is a dearth of desirable places for people to buy and call home at all price points, but particularly in the mid-range. Do you realize that more than one in three workers you see around the county every day have driven in from another jurisdiction because they can’t find an affordable, quality alternative closer to their workplace?
You have probably noticed that not too many new homes have been built around the county in the recent past. The problem stems from building costs compared to the appraised value of the property once it is completed. Excluding land, with modest finishes, it costs a minimum of $150 per square foot to build a new home; that cost has accelerated dramatically during the pandemic, as lumber has skyrocketed. Lenders cannot get appraisals to come out anywhere close to the real number it costs to build a house in Bourbon County, so the homeowner has thrown away thousands of dollars in equity on day one of homeownership. How many Southeast Kansans can afford that loss?
What is the problem? Years of low comparable sales data, along with high taxes on Bourbon County real estate, are the two main culprits. Our mil levy combined for all jurisdictions inside the county are much higher than our neighbors, especially Missourians. Hundreds of people own homes in our neighbor to the east, while paying MUCH lower property taxes, then commuting to Bourbon County for a good job and pay a lower state income tax rate. It is a win-win for Show-me Staters.
What is to be done? Here are a couple of thoughts:
We HAVE to lower taxes. High mil levies have a direct impact on home values. Additionally, people have a strong disincentive to improve, or add on to their properties. To accomplish this, we must look to lower the cost of government by looking to see how we can cooperate with one another between jurisdictions and share services.
We have to look at where prices are closer to the market, and develop those areas. Market pricing is closer to cost on, and around, Lake Fort Scott land, and large lot subdivisions around the area, such as along Maple Road. Can we get government owned land into the hands of developers and back on the tax rolls? Are there actions we can take as a community in these areas to narrow the gap between cost and appraisal?
We have to consider options at all price points. In-fill vacant lots in the city will require grant money or a charitable donation to work. Similarly, mid-price housing will require creativity and an outside injection of capital.
This quality housing dilemma will take time to solve, but we need to dedicate ourselves to an outside-the-box, persistent search for solutions. We need to tackle it together as a community.