Instead of debating how much each side should pay for cooperative agreements for shared services, the city of Lawrence and Douglas County should instead focus on consolidating government services where appropriate.
After all, increasing one entity’s share of a cooperative agreement while decreasing the other’s does little to help most taxpayers since 75 percent of the county’s residents live in the city of Lawrence and pay both city and county taxes.
City Manager Tom Markus launched the latest debate by airing his concern that city residents are carrying too much of the cost of dozens of cooperative agreements. Markus wants a review of all agreements — and adjustments as appropriate — as part of the city’s 2018 budget. County Manager Craig Weinaug’s responded that the agreements are fair and benefit both governments.
Property taxes levied on behalf of the city and the county support collaborations such as the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department, Health Department and Household Hazardous Waste. The city and county provide funding for the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, economic development and other programs. Various outside agencies also get support from both city and county tax dollars.
Markus argues that because city residents make up 75 percent of the county, if a service cost is shared evenly between the city and county, city residents wind up paying all of the city’s share and 75 percent of the county’s share. Weinaug noted that city residents use a majority of the services and that the city benefits from sales tax charged on noncity residents who do most of their shopping in Lawrence.
Of course, both arguments are correct. In truth, while the city or county can improve its bottom line if one shifts some of the responsibility for shared service to the other, there’s little for most taxpayers to gain in such a shift.
If city and county government officials want to help taxpayers, they should invest in studying increased consolidation. Could a single, countywide law enforcement agency provide for public safety more efficiently? Can administrative services that are duplicated by the city and county be combined into singular offices?
There are nearby models to study. The Riley County Police Department in Manhattan is an example of a merger between the sheriff’s office and the city police department. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County provides consolidated services for the county and Kansas City, Kansas. In Western Kansas, Tribune and Greeley County have a consolidated government.
Consolidation is a big step. But the efficiencies gained from merging duplicated services would seem to be far greater for residents than simply shifting costs from one taxing entity to another.