Government consolidation a hot topic

With a possible consolidation of Topeka and Shawnee County to the west, and the merger of Kansas City and Wyandotte County to the east, a Lawrence-Douglas County convergence could seem like the next logical step.

But Don Moler, executive director for the League of Kansas Municipalities, said there were many other factors to consider.

“I don’t think any county will want to consolidate unless there is a need. You have to have a problem before serious consolidation talks start,” he said last week at a Topeka conference of city and county leaders from around the state.

Moler said the push to consolidate Wyandotte County and Kansas City came when the area was facing harsh economic problems. Douglas County, he said, does not fit into that category.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius would like to make it easier for state and county governments to join forces.

Current state law prohibits counties and cities from merging without special legislation, but Sebelius, who supports consolidation in Shawnee County, hopes to see the law changed.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical firefighter Rod Sumonja, front, undergoes an exercise in rescue breathing with fellow firefighter Rich Young during training Wednesday at Station 3. Fire & Medical is among several city and county departments to merge; some state officials, including Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, are pushing for more government consolidation.

“I think there is no question we have to do a couple of things quickly. We need to change the Kansas law … to allow citizens to make a determination of what kind of local government they want.

“There is no reason at all that they need to come to Topeka to ask permission and then have legislators who don’t live in their area determine what the makeup needs to look like,” Sebelius said.

Working together

Lawrence City Manager Mike Wildgen said the city and county have already joined forces in some important departments like planning, dispatch, and fire and medical.

“We have a long history of convergence in certain departments. We’ve done some things together, but we’ve not really talked about the one-government option,” Wildgen said.

And that convergence has made a big difference to many Douglas County residents. County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the now-merged Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Department means roughly the same cost to the county as before consolidation but with improved efficiency.

“This was not designed to save money. It was not a cost-saving move. It was designed to provide an improved amount of service for the funds spent. We now have more manpower and a significant increase in service,” Weinaug said.

He used ambulance service as an example. Before consolidation there were only two ambulance stations in the county, both in Lawrence. That meant someone in southern Baldwin could wait nearly half an hour for an ambulance. Now there are five stations in Douglas County, including one in Baldwin, which means most of the county’s residents are closer to help when a medical emergency strikes.

Still, County Commissioner Jere McElhaney thinks complete consolidation between the county and city would do more harm than good.

“Three commissioners get the job done much more efficiently than a large government would do. If you get too many people stirring the pot, the food doesn’t get done,” he said.

High marks

McElhaney said it’s also important for units of government that are talking about merging, or even just working together, to recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

One example is at Broken Arrow Park where the city of Lawrence maintains the shelters, baseball fields and playground equipment, while Douglas County takes care of matters like mowing the grass and road maintenance, he said.

In the past, the cooperation between the city of Lawrence and Douglas County has gotten high marks.

A 2003 state audit that focused on three counties, including Douglas County, cited numerous areas of collaboration, including the consolidation of the 911 emergency system and the sharing by Douglas County and city of Lawrence of a law enforcement building, jail, record retention services and evidence custody room.

Randall Allen, executive director of the Kansas Association of Counties, said the possible consolidation in Shawnee County, which voters will decide soon, would not necessarily signify anything for Douglas County.

“I don’t think there will be an epidemic of consolidation” Allen said. “But it might foster a community discussion about structure. Whether it changes anything will remain to be seen.”