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Archive for Friday, April 7, 2006

Survival of the consolidated?

Rural town, county leaders propose united government to offset declining populations

April 7, 2006

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Some city and county leaders in parts of western Kansas are trying a novel approach to combat a trend toward declining populations in rural communities.

Tribune, a small town near the Colorado border, has proposed to fuse its government with that of Greeley County. Residents say that would allow more efficient use of staff and equipment and give dying towns a chance at survival.

"There is a frontier mind-set - a survival, tough, entrepreneurial mind-set. I would credit that spirit as being a part of what has caused them to say, 'Hey, we have to be smarter and do it better,"' Terry Woodbury, president of Kansas Communities LLC, which specializes in county and city development, said Thursday.

"Their effort to unify city and county government come from their desire to use their resources well. They simply believe they have no room for waste."

Woodbury said over the past 18 months, civic leaders have been able to put together a small-scale plan to unify the governments, strengthening the community without drastic job or budget cuts.

More than 150 people - about 12 percent of the county - recently attended a grass-roots meeting to discuss the plan.

"We think if the state would get out of the way and quit micromanaging communities, they could figure it out on their own," said Randall Allen, president of the Kansas Association of Counties.

Allen said that with the exception of perhaps Illinois and Ohio, no other state has as many government units per capita as Kansas.

"The state needs to get out of the way and let locals begin to experiment and discuss alternatives," he said.

"For being such strong, individualistic, prairie populists, we sure love our government. We have a lot of it."

Perhaps suggestive of the challenges found at the state and federal level, a bill introduced in the Kansas Legislature to streamline the merger process breezed through the House but got bogged down in the Senate.

Negotiators are attempting to reconcile a House bill designed with Greeley County and Tribune in mind and a more encompassing Senate bill that would remove much of the state oversight in a variety of government consolidations.

"It's really indicative of the changes we need to make," said Dan Epp, publisher of the Greeley County Republican, a weekly newspaper.

The population of Tribune has dwindled from 918 in 1990 to 758 in 2004, according to U.S. Census data.

The population of Greeley County has likewise fallen by more than 400, making it the most sparsely populated county in the state.

Unification is happening across Kansas, with several school districts merging along the Nebraska and Kansas border this summer. But rarely, if ever, have rural communities attempted whole-scale government unification to ward off declining population and slowing economies.

"I believe they've discovered that of all the consolidations in the United States, there is no other rural example," Woodbury said. "These have all been urban-dominated areas."

Officials in Tribune took their unification model from Wyandotte County, an urban setting that had witnessed a similar decline in population and economic viability. The unification effort there about 10 years ago helped stop the downward spiral.

"If you look at rural America and certainly small communities, part of it is we're looking for is a different story that says we can survive as a community," Epp said. "And we don't find those stories in Washington or Topeka."

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