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Archive for Monday, May 6, 2002

Sometimes one head is better than two, area governments say

Consolidation may improve efficiency, cut costs

May 6, 2002

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Don't expect the five blocks of Massachusetts Street between City Hall and the Douglas County Courthouse to be bridged anytime soon, but a few organizational walls separating the governments may come tumbling down in the near future.

Officials are looking for some of the barriers to crumble in the name of efficiency and service.

"People oftentimes say government should be run more like a business," said Charles Jones, a Douglas County commissioner whose district includes the Kansas University campus and most of Lawrence north of 15th Street. "Well, every business that I know of has experienced some consolidation.

"I can imagine, someday, that we'll be looking at a consolidated city-county government. We may be years away from that, but we need to be showing some leadership to get there."

The latest step will come this week, when county and city commissioners consider a joint operating agreement for maintenance of Broken Arrow Park at 31st and Louisiana streets. The city of Lawrence owns the north side of the park but would care for equipment on both sides; the county owns the south side, but would mow the grass on both sides.

Earlier attempts

As with most moves to consolidate, the idea is to cut costs without sacrificing service.

"It's logical to think of trading services," said Fred DeVictor, the city's director of parks and recreation. "It will save taxpayers some money by us trying to work together."

If approved, the agreement would be added to several existing partnerships between the two governments. From planning to emergency services, the city and county already share plenty of equipment, personnel and expertise.

But leaders on both sides know that making sweeping changes is never easy.

Last year, County Commissioner Bob Johnson abandoned his suggestion for establishing a "unit road system" after intense criticism from township residents. The system would have given responsibility for maintenance of all rural roads to the county, instead of the existing system handled by trustees in the county's nine townships.

The roads bureaucracy clearly frustrates Johnson.

"Our townships maintain roads, and our county maintains roads, and our cities maintain roads, and the state of Kansas maintains roads and the United States Highway Department maintains roads all running through our county," Johnson said. "If you were starting from scratch, today, do you think you would put that many governmental entities in charge of maintaining roads? In an area as small as Douglas County?

"I think not."

Statewide problem

Governmental proliferation isn't limited to Douglas County.

Kansas has 3,950 units of local government, enough to rank No. 5 in the United States for the number of taxing jurisdictions, according to a study commissioned for the League of Kansas Municipalities. That's 105 counties, 327 school districts, 627 cities and hundreds of special districts for libraries, drainage projects, cemeteries and other needs that have some form of authority over public projects.

Kim Gulley, the league's director of policy development and communications, said that with so many governments many are bound to cooperate on some level. So far only one the Unified Government of Wyandotte County has merged all of its city and county operations, although Riley County handles all law-enforcement activities for itself and the five cities in the county.

Talk of consolidation often gains speed in times of tight budgets, Gulley said. That means plenty of discussion should surface this year as governments throughout the state struggle to fill financial holes. But actually carrying out a combination isn't as easy as it sounds.

"When you say the actual word, 'consolidation,' it makes people nervous. There's a fear of one government swallowing up another," Gulley said. "A government is the community for people. And people don't want their government to go away. But they do expect services to be provided as efficiently as possible, and oftentimes that requires governments to work together."

Existing partnerships

Among existing partnerships between Lawrence and Douglas County:

Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Office: County contracts with the city to review plans for development in rural areas. The office of city employees advises the joint Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical: The city department is the combination of the former Lawrence Fire Department and Douglas County Ambulance Service. Both governments contribute the same share of money for the department, but ambulance service expanded from operating out of two stations in Lawrence to four in town and one in Baldwin.

Douglas County Emergency Communications: The county department handles dispatch services for fire, medical, police and sheriff's calls for the county and all of its incorporated cities. The combination allowed for upgraded equipment, and improved efficiency among employees, said Craig Weinaug, county administrator.

Jones now wants the county to explore turning over its parks to the city of Lawrence, which has a budget and personnel dedicated to parks maintenance and operation.

"You can also imagine consolidation of police services," he said. "There are a lot of areas you can conceive of consolidation. There are turf issues and monetary issues, but also there are also growth issues, and as you grow and because more of a unified community, I think it makes it more possible to consider these issues."

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