Ask people in Kansas City, Kansas what it means to have a unified government, and you’ll get some interesting answers.
“Kansas City is like Australia,” says Hannah Milner, a stay-at-home mom who has lived in KCK for seven years. “They’re a country and a continent. We’re a county and a city.”
Despite this strong metaphor, Milner admits, “I don’t really understand the government side of things.”
That’s a fairly common sentiment in the Kansas City area. So let’s go back in time to see how the unified government developed, and what it means for KCK today.
Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 1997. Kansas City, Kan., operates its own city government, and the city is in a tailspin. The property taxes are the highest in the state. People are moving out as fast as they can pack up the truck, fleeing to nearby Johnson County or over the state line to Missouri. The city government is hit with scandal after scandal, plagued by rumors of patronage and corruption. There isn’t a movie theater or shopping. A new grocery store hadn’t opened in the urban core in decades.
“We were in a deep abyss,” says former city administrator Dennis Hays. “We had to try something. We had to go for a Hail Mary pass.”
KCK had one thing going for it: it was in Wyandotte County, a relatively well-run county.
“Wyandotte had a dynamic mayor and a really strong county manager,” says Suzanne Leland, a professor of public policy at University of North Carolina-Charlotte. While getting her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, she was on the committee that created the unification proposal. “They also were just a much more professionalized government, with things like performance measures and a personnel division.”
It helped that Kansas City basically was Wyandotte County, making up 94 percent of all county residents. Kansas City residents were being served by both a struggling, financially instable city government and a well-run, corruption-free county government.
On April 1, 1997, Wyandotte County residents voted to consolidate the two governments into one. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., was born. (Perhaps after all the negotiations and fine-tuning they simply didn’t have the energy to come up with a simpler name.)
Many cities across the United States combine forces with their county government, particularly when the city covers most or all of the county. Residents don’t need two police forces, or two parks departments, or two mayors. The largest example is the City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia County.
Kansas City and Wyandotte County had divvied up most services over the years, so there wasn’t much money to be saved there. Some departments expanded during the transition, like the three city commissioners replaced by a 10-person Board of Commissioners.
But unification wasn’t really about saving money up front. It was about making a radical change to symbolize a fresh start.
“It gave people optimism and hope,” says Leland. “People were suddenly excited to be part of the movement, part of the place where they lived.”
It’s important to have happy residents. But it’s more important to have sales tax and corporate investment. Unifying the governments sent the message that KCK was putting its corrupt past behind it and opening for business. They started with the Kansas Speedway in west Wyandotte County.
“If consolidation had not occurred, there would have been so much political haggling and in-fighting between the city and county,” says Hays. “The Speedway deal never would have gotten done. Never.”
The Speedway was step one. Then came Legends, Village West, Nebraska Furniture Mart and other job-creators. Just recently, they started building high-end apartments in that area. This influx of industry allowed the new government to keep their promise. Property taxes are more than 20 percent lower today than they were in 1996.
Almost twenty years later, the Unified Government is just a way of life for people in KCK. Day-to-day governance runs much the same as before and, if anything, consolidation simplified some of the bureaucracy.
“We turned the corner as a community,” says Dennis Hays. “We’re a location that young people want to move to. We have jobs, we have opportunities, and we have shopping. And because of that, we’re able to retain talent in our communities.”
He says unification is to thank for that. Hays realizes most young people and new residents don’t appreciate the hard work that went into cleaning up Kansas City, Kan., by consolidating with Wyandotte County. But he says as long as the Unified Government is working, he’s happy to let the history fade.
This look at the Wyandotte / Johnson County line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.
We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Become a source for KCUR as we investigate Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.