Embarking on my mayoral year in April of 1989, I set an agenda that included exploration of city/county governmental unification. The firestorm of protest that ensued was memorable. For many, the concept was not just controversial but unthinkable. While to me it seemed appropriate that we at least dispassionately study the potential benefits and challenges associated with such a step, the environment to do so was not in place. I hope it is now.
At a time when fiscal realities are causing Amer-icans of all political viewpoints to reassess the scope and scale of government, Kansas has the highest number of governmental units per capita. The same was true in 1989. In Kansas and across America, a local governmental structure of counties, cities and townships designed for the 19th century is assumed to be viable and appropriate for the 21st. While every other aspect of America has fundamentally altered, we assume that our governmental structure can remain unchanged.
Kansans have historically loved their nearly 4,000 units of local government. However, it’s fair to ask whether Kansans can still afford them and whether there are updated models that might make more sense. Across America and close to home, we have seen many successful examples of services or even full governmental unification. The City of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County merged to create a fully unified government in the mid-1990s and have in the process created an economic powerhouse.
Was that unification controversial? Absolutely. Has it been a huge success? Without a doubt.
The Wyandotte County experience illustrates one of the promises of unification — that increased efficiency and unified strategic vision can create an increased ability to deliver on economic development opportunities. With the anticipated arrival of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), our area will see hundreds of new high-paying jobs. But the NBAF benefit will not end there.
Over time, Manhattan and its environs will reap tremendous benefit from companies wanting to locate near the NBAF and near Kansas State University’s related powerhouse research capability. We have an obligation to put ourselves in the best possible position to take full advantage of these opportunities, which could create literally thousands of high-paying technology-based jobs. I believe local government service or full governmental unification would significantly increase our ability to capture these opportunities.
In Riley County and in Manhattan. we have been blessed over the generations with effective, efficient county and city governance, yet can we honestly say we can’t do better? Can we honestly say the ever-increasing demands for efficiency, service quality and wealth-creating growth in the 21st century global economy won’t require us to do better?
I believe the time has come for our Manhattan and Riley County commissions to study whether unification would benefit the citizenry. The two governing bodies could begin by creating a blue-ribbon committee of thoughtful and respected citizens from across our community and county to begin defining the issues, challenges and relative benefits and pitfalls of unification.
In 1989, I learned that most people thought this course was simply unthinkable. In 2013, the competitive demands of a 21st-century world and the fiscal realities of governance may require us to not only think about, but even act upon, what once was unthinkable.
Kent Glasscock, a former mayor and Kansas House Speaker, is president of the KSU Institute for Commercialization.