Archive for Thursday, February 2, 2006

Johnson-Wyandotte merger?

Leaders find little good to say about legislator’s proposal

February 2, 2006

A local state senator's proposed merging of Wyandotte and Johnson counties has met with varying degrees of indifference, scorn and ridicule by area legislators and officials.

Sen. Chris Steineger, D-Kansas City, Kan., introduced a bill to create a commission for the purpose of studying the effects and possible benefits of consolidating the two counties into a city that would, he said, comprise the 15th largest city in the country to compete with the likes of Minneapolis and Denver.

Steineger was one of two witnesses who testified Tuesday at a hearing by the Federal and State Affairs Committee for Senate Bill 427.

His talking points said that consolidation of the counties with their municipalities "would have the strength of 650,000 Kansans united with one political leadership. We would be the power player on the plains."

He also said, "Unified government leadership would give us a simplified and faster planning and decision making process, more transparency, and greater accountability. We would compete decisively with cities like Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, and Indianapolis."

After the hearing, Steineger admitted his bill would face an uphill battle.

"The two biggest obstacles," Steineger said, are that "this is an entirely new concept that is at first difficult for people to understand," and that "city politicians look out only for their own cities and protect their own kingdoms."

Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City, Kan., laughed when asked for his opinion of Steineger's bill.

"That's my reaction," he said. "It caught me off guard."

"As the legislative chairman for my delegation, I was not approached. I wasn't warned about it."

Gilstrap said, "I can't guess why" Steineger proposed it.

"I guess he has some extra time on his hands."

He said the biggest reason for his not supporting the proposal was "personal": "We talked to people there (in Johnson County). They don't acknowledge us. I don't know if it's arrogance. That was before we got Village West. Now they're biting their tongue. Their attitude in past years was they didn't want to come here."

Rep. Ray Cox, R-Bonner Springs, also dismissed the idea. He said, "... he (Steineger) hasn't even thought about this: who's got the majority votes" to elect officials or pass ordinances.

Bonner Springs Mayor Clausie Smith said he didn't know anyone who was for the idea of consolidation.

"Personally I think it's a ludicrous idea," he said. "I see absolutely no benefit to anybody in either county."

Smith said, "I'm not sure it would save money or do anything but create a huge county."

Smith echoed Gilstrap's reference to the antagonism between the two counties' residents.

"Let's face it," he said. "There are great differences between the counties. Personally I can't see residents of either county being for it."

Wyandotte County Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon's spokesman, Don Denney, said of Steineger's bill, "I have not heard anyone at all express support for it."

Denney said, "The mayor's position is that the current process is working quite well for both counties the way things are set up now."

He added, "The unified government has a very good relationship with Johnson County. I've spoken to all the commissioners; none of them have any desire to further this issue down the road. I think it's going to fall by the wayside."

Sen. Nick Jordan, R-Shawnee, said, "I don't know that it's a very plausible plan. I have not heard a lot of support from other legislators."

On the merger's chances of improving the economy for the region, he said, "I think both counties are doing well economically now." He said Wyandotte County is making progress with Village West, and Johnson County is beating the nation in many facets of its economy.

"I don't know that combining them would provide a stronger economic base or not," he said.

He also pointed out Johnson County alone has 22 local municipalities. "To try and bring all that together in one merged government would be a real difficult task ... Once a community has developed their own lifestyle and has their own image, it's difficult to relinquish that."

Shawnee Mayor Jeff Meyers said, "My initial thought was it definitely sounds like it wouldn't be realistic in happening right now, or any time in the near future that I can see... I don't know if it's something that people are going to spend much time digesting."

He's heard residents of both counties say "why would we want that?"

Steineger said the reactions to his proposal were "interesting."

"I'm trying to get people to think outside the box, he said.

Indeed, those were the words Sen. Dennis Wilson used in an apparent compliment to Steineger at the committee hearing Wednesday.

Steineger said he didn't think there were all that many differences between Johnson County and Wyandotte County residents: "We're all Americans -- we all live in Kansas, we're all Midwesterners -- we have a lot in common."

He said, "In the long term it's about being competitive in the global economy."

Steineger said that other cities such as Bangalore, India, or Shanghai, China, have a unified consolidated political structure "than can make decisions quickly and lead their people and focus the city's resources to compete and achieve."

Steineger said he couldn't name anyone behind his idea.

He said, "I haven't maintained a list of either opponents or proponents."

He added, "I'd say anybody who dismisses this idea outright hasn't taken the time to hear both sides of this case, and think about what we can accomplish what we could become ."

Art Hall, a professor and director of the Applied Economics Center at the University of Kansas, gave the only other testimony besides Steineger's at the hearing Wednesday.

Hall said he thought streamlining local government bureaucracies to make them more effective and efficient was possible through plans such as Steineger's, but that such mergers weren't the only way.

"My general feeling is that you can rationalize without consolidating and consolidate without rationalizing," he said.

Hall said it was theoretically possible the combined counties could save $160 million a year by reducing the number of staff per 1,000 residents from the present 1.5 to .9. But consolidation isn't necessary for such reductions, he said.

"It's not clear consolidation is worth the strain," he said.

He said, "You can have a virtual as opposed to actual consolidation," through memorandums of understanding between neighboring municipalities.

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