Discontent among member cities and a budget deficit approaching $1 billion has Bonner Springs, Edwardsville, and Kansas City, Kansas leaders discussing reforms, and a possible break-up, of the 25-year-old Unified Government.
Mayors Jeff Harrington of Bonner Springs, Carolyn Caiharr of Edwardsville, and Tyrone Garner of KCK met recently and announced they would begin meetings with constituents to discuss moving forward with an arrangement that voters in Bonner Springs and Edwardsville rejected in 1997. The three cities have their own local governments, while the unified government provides county services.
Caiharr is spearheading the movement and acts as the group’s spokesperson. We asked her a series of questions:
What are the points of contention in Edwardsville with the Unified Government?“Although the Unified Government publishes that this was a unanimous vote, it certainly was not. The residents of Edwardsville voted No, as did the residents of Bonner Springs. They knew the unification would not serve our communities well. This premonition, unfortunately, seems to have been correct. In most instances of unified governments, the unification takes place between all cities located within the county. To clarify, we did not want the unification at all, but the reason most entities do not unify in the way we did in Wyandotte, is because it simply does not work out for the other cities involved. Because of the unification, we lost our County Commission, the board whose purpose was to look out for the needs of the County. Our County Commission was dissolved and replaced by a UG Commission whose primary focus is Kansas City, Kansas.
“Because of the unification, two budgets that should be distinct from each other have been convoluted and are, in many areas, fluid from one to the other. This lacks transparency and accountability. The consolidation of the governments of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County has resulted in the consolidation of multiple funds that siphon tax dollars away from Wyandotte County to serve Kansas City, Kansas. In this way, among many others, the unification has not benefited the people of Edwardsville.”
Is your city, Bonner Springs, and KCK united in their growing dissatisfaction with the unified government?
“The mayors of all three cities have voiced their concerns in their disappointment in our current situation. What was promised to bring about a more effective and efficient government has grown into a massive bureaucratic machine that has been stretched too thin to best care for the residents of Wyandotte County. Residents are fearful of losing their homes this year because of the ever-increasing taxes, while the government promises to try for a better solution next year, same as the year before. The UG has spent itself into an unsustainable financial spiral and a system that needs to be reassessed before it is too late. I have personally heard from residents from all three cities, coming from every area of Wyandotte County, that feel a change is imperative and necessary.”
What do you hope to accomplish in the upcoming community meetings on the issue?
“I think it is time for the residents who have been unheard for so long to have a voice. This is their government. This is not about me or any one person but about finding solutions that will better serve the people of Wyandotte County. There are a few different directions this initiative may take. The Unified Government has been compared to a sinking ship. To use the same analogy, our residents may say they want to patch the ship, they may want to look at the option of boarding a new ship, or they may say they are comfortable with the ship they are on and want to continue the current path. These community meetings will help me determine the direction in which the residents desire to move forward.”
The Sentinel also reached out to Mayors Harrington and Garner for comments. Neither responded, but Garner told The Kansas City Star of his concern for the unified government’s financial outlook. Revealing the spectre of bankruptcy looming by the end of this decade, Garner admitted:
“…we are in dire straits when you talk about the finances of this Unified Government,”
The mayor added rising property taxes (230% since unification) and the unfulfilled promise of lower taxes and development nearer KCK from The West Village are factors in the recent grumbling about UG:
“Specifically east of (Interstate) 635 in an area that I like to call ‘economic segregated areas’ of this county. You should not have to be powerful, privileged, connected or influential to be relevant or to get anything done in Wyandotte County.”
Also unimpressed with the results of unification is Scott Steele, Head of the Board of Supervisors, the governing body of Greeley County on the Colorado border:
“We are the smallest county population-wise (1,300) in the state. I think when it (unification) was started in 2009, the powers that be thought it would be a saving on taxes and services. As far as savings, I don’t think there is much. Not real sure (about) the mind set when it was voted into unification. I personally didn’t like it from the get-go but it’s here, so we make it work.
“Tribune still has its own workforce of 1 to 2 men plus the clerk who takes care of all the day-to-day business; she is actually the payroll clerk for the city and county. The county has the road department, which sometimes helps the city do streets and other projects. We still have to deal with all the city issues in Tribune and Horace, as well as the county. Horace people voted to stay on their own; they have some problems because no workforce and not very many people live there.”
Community meetings in Wyandotte County to discuss the future of unification are expected to begin in November.