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Are Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, due for a breakup 25 years after unification?

Mayor Jeff Harrington of Bonner Springs, Kansas (L) and Mayor Carolyn Caiharr from Edwardsville, Kansas discuss the future of Wyandotte County government in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.
Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
Mayor Jeff Harrington of Bonner Springs, Kansas (left) and Mayor Carolyn Caiharr from Edwardsville, Kansas, discuss the future of Wyandotte County government in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.

Citing mounting financial issues with the Unified Government, the mayors of the three biggest cities in Wyandotte County say they're open to hearing from residents about a different form of government.

The door is open — albeit slightly — to dissolving the 25-year-old Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.

The mayors of Kansas City, Kansas, Edwardsville, and Bonner Springs announced Wednesday they will meet with residents in the coming months to hear complaints and solutions to what they say are mounting financial problems. One possible solution? Breaking apart the Unified Government.

"The three of us mayors recognize the need to review and evaluate the current state of affairs," said Bonner Springs Mayor Jeff Harrington.

On April 1, 1997, Wyandotte County residents voted to consolidate the governments of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County into one. At the time, Kansas City, Kansas, was in a tailspin — property taxes were the highest in the state, people were moving away to neighboring Johnson County and Missouri, and rumors of government corruption were rampant. Wyandotte County, on the other hand, was relatively well-run and already covered 94% of all county residents.

Edwardsville and Bonner Springs voted against joining with Wyandotte County in 1997. Now they say problems in Kansas City, Kansas, have been so mismanaged, they aren't getting the county services they need.

Tyrone Garner, mayor and CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, said Wednesday that Unified Government finances are so bad the government could be bankrupt by 2026.

"If the Unified Government had been working as promised, I personally don't believe we would've inherited a billion dollars worth of debt. I don't believe we would be on a pathway to bankruptcy," he said.

Garner, elected in 2021 in his first run for political office, was highly critical of the "weak mayor" form of government created when the Unified Government was approved and said consolidation hasn't created efficiencies. "That promise presented to Wyandotte County back in 1997 from those that said that we need to consolidate to replace a machine. It appears that that machine has been replaced with a bigger machine that is now operating on all cylinders."

While each mayor called for change, all three stopped short of saying that a campaign to dissolve the Unified Government was underway.

"I'm not in a position today to come out ahead of my resident group because I feel like if I do that, then I'm not really listening to our residents," said Edwardsville Mayor Carolyn Caiharr. Those resident groups will start meeting next month, she said.

Harrington went a little further — suggesting that there are so many problems in Kansas City, Kansas, that the Unified Government has less time for Bonner Springs and Edwardsville. "That does seem to be the case occasionally, yes," he said.

Former Republican state Sen. Chris Steineger was in the legislature from 1997 to 2013 and was a major backer of unifying the county and city governments 25 years ago. Now he's leaning towards a break up because, he said, the Unified Government spends too much, hires too many people and has made some bad development deals in the western part of the county.

"We're kind of like the Titanic. We've already hit the iceberg. A lot of people don't quite realize how bad it is, but we need to try and change our local government and the way of thinking if we want to survive," Steineger said.

Voters would have to approve any change. If the campaign to break up the Unified Government moves forward, there are two ways it could reach the ballot. The Unified Government commission could vote to do it or, as happened in 1997, the state legislature could pass a law ordering a vote.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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