Editorial: Consolidation worth studying

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The timing is right for a serious study of consolidating the governments of Lawrence and Douglas County, despite what some county officials said about the idea.

After all, the administrative leaders of the city and the county have each announced plans to retire in the next nine months. Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has announced that he will retire by the end of the year. And at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Markus announced his plans to step down next spring.

Weinaug and Markus deserve praise for the work they have done in their roles. Each has left his mark. But their departures in close proximity to each other presents an opportunity to look closely at whether a more unified government could offer benefits and savings, including unified leadership and a single administrative manager.

Lawrence Mayor Stuart Boley asked for a discussion of the issue Wednesday when officials from the county, city and Lawrence school board held a joint meeting. Boley suggested that the county’s legislative delegation take the lead on studying the issue, saying that legislators could offer an impartial perspective and that unification would require legislative action.

Boley’s idea didn’t get much traction with commissioners Nancy Thellman and Michelle Derusseau.

Derusseau said neither she nor the rural western Douglas County residents she represents in District 3 had an interest in unified government. But a majority of Derusseau’s constituents don’t live in rural western Douglas County; they live in southwest Lawrence. It would seem premature for Derusseau — or any other city or county commissioner for that matter — to dismiss consolidated government as something their constituents aren’t interested in.

What residents wouldn’t be interested in more efficient government that worked to eliminate duplication of services and thus require less of taxpayers’ money?

There are a variety of examples of consolidated governments around the country, including two in Kansas: the unified government of Kansas City and Wyandotte County and the consolidated government of Tribune and Greeley County.

Currently, Lawrence and Douglas County cooperate on providing several services. Examples include the City-County Planning Department, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire-Medical, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and Douglas County Emergency Communications.

But could greater efficiencies be achieved by combining other city and county departments that are similar in the service they provide such as law enforcement, public works and road and street maintenance? Could the city of Lawrence and Douglas County operate better, at lower cost, under the leadership of one elected body and a single administrator? Those seem like reasonable questions to try to answer, especially with the county administrator and city manager planning to retire in a few months.

Boley wasn’t asking county commissioners to sign off on consolidated government; he simply thinks it’s to taxpayers’ benefit to at least study it. He’s right. Now, let’s hope that with time to reconsider, county commissioners will warm to the idea.

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