As Kansas state government braces for another round of budget cuts or tax increases (or both) to balance the state’s declining revenue, Wyandotte County is looking forward to a big jump in tax collections. That’s just part of the county’s profound, if spotty, change of fortunes.
Twenty years ago, Carol Marinovich became mayor of a city in steep decline. The Kansas City, Kansas she grew up in was collapsing. The house she grew up in, along with half her Strawberry Hill neighborhood, had long since been bulldozed to make way for I-70. But that was far from the worst of it. Wyandotte County seemed locked in a death spiral.
“We lost over 30,000 people,” laments Marinovich. “And that doesn’t mean that the needs went down, because you had fewer residents. The needs of the community increased. The tax base decreased, and created a huge gap. And the only way they could make up that gap, was raising property taxes.”
Every year mounting property taxes, sagging government services, high crime and unemployment repelled still more residents.
“We were a dying community,” says Marinovich.
In the northeast corner, it looked more like the patient had already died.
“It looked like a bomb had been through, you know, tornado for the most part,” recalls Rev. C.L. Bachus.
Bachus, watched all this from the same vantage point he has today — his cluttered office in Mount Zion Baptist Church near 5th and Parallel Parkway.
“You would kind of just see dilapidated houses, empty houses, and debris. All of it was places where people had lived. And a few people still lived in the properties, but not very many at all,” says Bachus.
Back then the city and county governments were part of the problem. They overlapped across most of the county, fought frequently, and awarded jobs based on political loyalties. It was a real mess.
So, a couple of guys — Mike Jacobi and Kevin Kelley — launched a drive to unify the city and county. Marinovich was interested, but skeptical. She flew to Columbus, Georgia, a consolidated town, where, she says, her cab driver convinced her.
“I’ll never forget, we were driving on a highway and he looks up and he points up to this bluff and on top of this bluff was all this retail development, he goes, 'Look up there. None of that was here before consolidation,'" recalls Marinovich.
It was a vision of salvation. New stores in KCK would bring sales tax revenue and let city leaders cut the notoriously high property taxes. Marinovich got behind consolidation, and also started chasing a massive new development: a NASCAR track.
The big day
Then, on April 1, 1997 Marinovich finally got her first meeting with the International Speedway officials. That alone would qualify as a pivotal day in for Kansas City, Kansas. But there was something else happening that April Fool’s Day.
“That was the day consolidation was on the ballot,” says Marinovich. “A speedway wasn’t uppermost in my mind, voter turnout was.”
Green light for development
Consolidation passed, easily, and that paved the way for the new Unified Government landing the Kansas Speedway. The promise of 70,000 race fans packing the stands helped the Unified Government develop the land just east of it, 400 acres with a few older homes, a gas station and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Marinovich grins broadly at the transformation today.
“We have Kansas Speedway. We have Community America Ballpark, Sporting, for our soccer stadium,” boasts Marinovich. “We have Cabela's, which is a destination unto itself, Nebraska Furniture Mart, and this Legends retail area with the movie theaters,” she continues.
There’s a casino, seven hotels, hundreds of new housing units. More than $1 billion in private investment that kicks off about $20 million a year in property taxes. Now, well over 10,000 people work where only a handful did 20 years ago.
“We’re growing. We’re becoming a more thriving community,” says Marinovich.
“There’s been a tremendous change here,” agrees Bachus. “It looks like it might have happened just in one place, but gradually it’s moving in this direction,” he says.
Back in the northeast corner of the county, Rev. Bachus says that with some help from the city, Mount Zion has built dozens of new houses. Other churches have redeveloped land and buildings too, but as Bachus says, private investment has been scarce, and much of his corner of the county is still pretty desolate.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the visible effects of it very strongly yet,” says Bachus. “I hope that we will, when some of the bonds are paid off, and some of the money can be flowing in this direction.”
Here comes a huge jump in sales tax revenue
These bonds Bachus is talking about are the so-called STAR bonds, used to help fund development out west. Sales tax revenue, used to pay off the bonds, has been so strong that they’re on track to be paid off by the end of next year, five years ahead of schedule.
This is great news for the whole cash-strapped state of Kansas, because when the bonds are paid off the state will start collecting an additional $40 million or so in sales taxes each year from Village West. It’s also a boon for the Unified Government which stands to collect extra $12 to $15 million a year.
“Just to give you an idea, that will increase local sales tax revenue by approximately 30 percent,” says Lew Levin, the Unified Government’s Chief Financial officer. Subtract the Speedway and western development from the government’s finances though, and Levin says, KCK would be sinking in the same fiscal quicksand that trapped it 20 years ago.
“We would be in a cycle of how we could reduce expenses,” says Levin. “Cutbacks on employment, our capital investment, and an inability to fully deliver government services.”
Please be patient
Instead, the Unified Government is attracting additional residents for the first time in generations. And rather than perpetual crisis and decline, the issue facing its leaders is how to use all the new sales tax revenue expected to start flooding around the end of next year. Marinovich, Bachus and others want them to use some of it to cut property taxes — fufill another promise of consolidation.
Marinovich says bringing all of Kansas City, Kansas back from the terrible straits it was in 20 years ago is going to take a sustained effort.
“To eradicate all the blight, and have it replaced by new development in all the older parts of the community, it’s going to take time,” says Marinovich. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process. And if I could ask people in the community anything it’s 'Please be patient.'”
This look at the line between Wyandotte and Johnson Counties is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.
We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Become a source for KCUR as we investigate Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.