Man who led Wyandotte County unification effort says combining Lawrence, Douglas County governments ‘would take a generation’

photo by: Journal-World graphic

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., and the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

It “would take a generation” to unify the governments of Douglas County and the city of Lawrence, even if there were a general agreement to do so, a man who led the effort that created the Wyandotte County Unified Government told the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday.

Douglas County commissioners invited Kevin Kelley, director of the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, to speak about his experience in Wyandotte County. There, Kelley was the president of a grassroots effort that successfully advocated for the unification of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., governments. He then served on the committee that worked out the details of the dissolution of the city and county governments and the creation of a new unified government.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said the invitation was not the start of any process toward unification, only an effort to learn more about the process from someone who had experienced it.

Kelley said it took seven years to get the legislation needed to unify Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., through the Kansas Legislature, build community support for the change and schedule a successful referendum authorizing unification in 1997. Another 11 years were required to hash out all the details of how the new unified government would work.

“It is something that takes a lot of time, discernment, and you have to know what the purpose is,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he had no position on the question of whether Douglas County and Lawrence should unify. He did say there were significant differences in the two counties, pointing out the fact that Kansas City, Kan., almost completely fills Wyandotte County. While Wyandotte County contains no townships and only 1.2 square miles of unincorporated land, he said, Douglas County is much different, with 432 square miles of unincorporated territory, nine townships with governing bodies, as well as three cities other than Lawrence — Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton.

Residents of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., had many good reasons to want to unify, Kelley said. Prior to unification, he said, Wyandotte County and Kansas City experienced numerous indictments of corrupt officials and had the highest mill levy in the state, along with the highest crime rates. Kelley said corruption, high taxes and high crime were common motivations for counties and cities across the United States to unify.

Kelley warned against combining governments for economic reasons only.

”The first thing asked is how much is saved,” he said. “There’s no answer to that.”

In response to a statement from Thellman that the topic of unification keeps coming up, Kelley said it might be a reason to convene a group to research the topic in detail. He said people who are proposing unification might not know exactly what it entails.

The Lawrence City Commission has asked the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration to review unification. County commissioners have been cool to the concept, preferring to focus on a review of the interlocal agreements of shared responsibilities, such as Lawrence-Douglas County Fire-Medical.

Three county residents who live outside of Lawrence voiced opposition to unification at the meeting. Paul Bahnmaier, of Lecompton, said if a referendum on unification is ever put before voters, it must be designed with separate votes for Lawrence residents and those who live outside of the city.


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