by Mardee Handler, managing editor

The journey for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas officially began on April 1, 1997, when voters approved a measure to consolidate the governments of the City of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County, Kansas into one jurisdiction. The consolidation became effective on October 1, 1997.

The transition came with its challenges – even before the change took place. “The process of consolidating city and county government was extremely challenging because it was a transformation from the old way of doing things as it related to policy decisions driven by two separate and powerful government entities,” according to Edwin Birch, Public Information Officer.

“For us, it’s been a good journey.”

Once the new government structure was put into place, the benefits to taxpayers became tangible. Advanced functional consolidation and increased efficiencies through the elimination of duplicate services meant a 15 percent reduction in overall government workforce. Since the consolidation, the property tax rate has been lowered by 22 percent.

And the local economy is thriving. The metro area ranked in the top 20 for job growth from 2011-2012 (and from 2010-2011) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and third for new construction jobs between 2009-2010 by the Associated General Contractors of America.

“The power of a single policy-making board has been immense, and has helped bring better paying jobs to the community by attracting some the most significant economic development projects the metro area has ever experienced,” says Burch.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City is one of 34 consolidated city and county governments in the U.S., according to the National League of Cities (NLC). These consolidated governments take one of three forms:

  • Areas with governments legally designated as city-counties and operating primarily as cities (11);
  • Areas designated as metropolitan governments and operating primarily as cities (3); and
  • Areas having certain types of county offices, but as part of another government (city, township, special district or state) (20).

Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee became a consolidated metropolitan government on April 1, 1963 – with the swearing in of the first mayor and the first metropolitan council – after the approval of an official referendum in June of 1962.

The consolidation went into effect April 1, 1963, with the swearing in of the first mayor of Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County and the first Metropolitan Council. As Carole Bucy, Davidson County Historian, explains, “After World War II and throughout the 1950s, Davidson County experienced tremendous growth as people began moving to the suburbs. The County was unable to provide services for its influx of people. At the same time, the City’s tax base was diminishing as people moved out to the suburbs. Although the people living in the county needed more services (sewers, police protection, trash collection), many of them were reluctant to support this new idea out of fear that it would increase their taxes.” The African-American community, which had made considerable political gains in the 1950s, also voiced concern that its voting power would be diminished, she said.

The concerns of these two groups were addressed, and they were convinced that consolidation would be in their best interests.

“This public service without financial gain makes people feel that are part of the process.  It works.”

As in the case of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County has enjoyed increased efficiencies and lower taxes, both attributable to the combined government structure.

When the charter was written in 1962, according to Bucy, it created a 40-member Metropolitan Council. “While this may seem unwieldy, it has provided citizens with access to government. The writers of the charter were politically savvy and created a large number of boards and commissions whose members are local citizens acting as volunteers.”

“This public service without financial gain makes people feel that are part of the process. It works.”

Other advantages of a consolidated city-county government include cost-sharing, improved harmony among governmental units, and reduced jurisdictional confusion, according to a white paper issued by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), a state-wide agency of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service.

Those looking for a balance will find both the “pros” and “cons” of forming a consolidated government in the MTAS paper. Potential disadvantages include challenges arising from a change in government structures and required offices, as well as less clear distribution and control of resources.

Consolidating of governments is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Recently retired County Administrator Dennis Hays, of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, was the City Administrator during the transition from two governments to the consolidated form of government in 1997. He sums it up best:

During a presentation he made with former Mayor Joe Reardon to other municipalities as they discussed city government, Hays said, “We’re not selling consolidation. There are just some elements you may find interesting.”

“For us, it’s been a good journey.”