City leaders discuss prospect of merging city and county government
photo by: Journal-World graphic
In the midst of budget discussions for the City of Lawrence and Douglas County, some city leaders are asking whether the two governments should become one.
Commissioner Leslie Soden raised the topic at the City Commission’s meeting Tuesday, during a discussion of the city’s long-term strategic plan. Soden, who is running for the Douglas County Commission, asked whether discussions about the existing intergovernmental agreements between the city and county should include the larger conversation about creating a unified city-county government.
“For several years now, I’ve been talking about merging departments in some fashion with the county,” Soden said. “When you’re doing this global review of all of our agreements and trying to parse out who is doing what and to what degree, is it also time to start talking about merging different departments or even the crazier idea of merging city-county government?”
City Manager Tom Markus has said he wants to review the various agreements between the city and county, and responded that at the same time those reviews are occurring, the city could potentially coordinate with the University of Kansas school of public administration to look at all options, including a unified government. Markus noted that the city and county already have a joint fire and medical department and planning commission, which he said is often one of the biggest obstacles to consolidation.
“There are certain things that I think align maybe better than others, but of the six places I’ve worked, this place to me has the most likelihood of success in something like that,” Markus said. “You have one major dominant community in the entire county that is the majority of the population (and) a significant portion of the property valuation. I just think that there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
The city and county partner to fund services such as the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department, Planning and Development Services and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.
Though Markus said the existing agreements between the city and county indicate there is obviously a spirit of collaboration, he also noted that the review and redrafting of those agreements will be a significant effort. When Markus presented his recommended budget last month, he said he would like to look at the city’s numerous funding agreements with Douglas County to ensure the funding allocation is equitable.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug told the Journal-World Wednesday that though he is not necessarily opposed to discussing the idea of a unified government, he thinks the first step toward increasing collaboration is to confirm the existing agreements. He said those discussions need to happen in a way that is not competitive and instead focused on how the agreements can benefit both governments.
“Once you have re-established a history of being successful, then you might have set up an environment to make more aggressive collaborations,” Weinaug said.
Weinaug also noted that a merger would have to be approved by voters, including people in the unincorporated areas of Douglas County. He said he thinks city leaders sometimes talk about unified government only from the city’s perspective, and that people in unincorporated Douglas County generally have concerns that their interests would not be adequately represented in a unified government.
Markus said he thinks the goals of a merger can be enhanced service and more efficient governance, but that creating a unified government is a major political decision. He said the prospect would be a long-term discussion, and that if it were agreed to, it would not actually happen during his time as city manager. When asked by Soden how the city could approach the topic, he said that ultimately he thinks the discussion should be between the city and county commissions and perhaps administrators as well. He noted the smaller jurisdictions in Douglas County might want to retain some authority and that they could be segmented out.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen agreed that the first step is to have a meeting with city and county leaders on the topic. Commissioners discussed having a joint meeting with the county but a date has not yet been set.
Consolidation of a city and county government requires a vote of the people, and in Kansas that vote requires that a majority of voters inside the city limits approve the plan, and also that a majority of voters in the unincorporated part of the county approve the plan, according to Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug.
Nationally, most votes aren’t successful. Over the past 40 years, nearly 100 referendums and initiatives have proposed city-county consolidations, but voters have rejected three-fourths of them.
There are about 40 cites nationwide that have consolidated with their respective counties, including Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. There are two such examples in Kansas: Kansas City and Wyandotte County and Tribune and Greeley County.
Reasons for consolidation include improved cost savings, efficiency and planning capacity. The most common form of consolidated government is a single chief executive and a multi-district council with a few at-large seats.
The consolidation of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County in 1997 replaced the seven-member city council and three-member county commissioners board with an 11-member Board of Commissioners. Of the 11 members of the new commission, eight are elected by district and two countywide. The 11th board member is the mayor, who is also elected countywide, has veto power and can vote to break a board tie. The mayor appoints the county administrator with the consent of the commission.
Source: National League of Cities