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Maybe the Consolidation Bug
by Jack Cashill
or the last year, the media have been desperately trying to hang the “racist” tag around the Tea Party movement as a way to discredit it. This past weekend, they would seem to have finally succeeded.
The quaint mico-burgs of northeast Johnson County are becoming a bit of a municipal anachronism—with predictable outcomes for those who pay property taxes.
On a sub-zero morning last December, at approximately 4:30 a.m., a Fairway policeman pulled me over for failure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. On the following day, also at 4:30 a.m., also sub-zero, a Mission policeman pulled me over for driving 39 miles per hour on a 30-mph stretch of Johnson Drive.
In both cases, the police were professional and polite, and in neither case did they ticket me. That I would have understood. Why not squeeze a little revenue out of a non-voter? No, in both cases I was stopped “for your own good.” Each stop, in fact, represented a symptom of a larger, subtler, more subversive problem—the metastasizing of “good government.” This is a problem that comes with a cost.
For all the intimate charms of small town government, Fairway and Mission and cities like them suffer from something Mayberry never did, namely mission creep—the mutation of city management into city micromanagement.
In reading the minutes of a City Council meeting in Fairway, for instance, I came across a protracted discussion with “Special Zoning Counsel Horner” as to why garage doors cannot be placed forward of front doors, why facades must have at least 15 percent windows and doors, and why the City Code “would limit a copper roof for accents.” Said the official minutes of the copper accent question posed to Horner, “It is a preference issue and he does not have a reason for that.” Still, I bet he charged for his time.
When I heard that both Fairway and Mission had recently started dunning their citizens and businesses for even more tax money to make their good governments better, I was not a wee bit surprised. Nor, given the economic climate, was I surprised to see the seeds of a tax revolt sprouting. That’s especially true in Mission, with its preposterously self-defeating “driveway tax,” more aptly called the “drive-away tax,” as that is what it will do to local business.
What has surprised me is the absence of a serious effort to solve the municipal good-government problem in the only way that makes long-term good sense: consolidating cities. Locally, no area is riper for consolidation than northern Johnson County, whose amiably stagnant little burgs, like Mission and Fairway, are thought of by southern Johnson County ED types the way the rest of us think of Detroit.
A quick look at Fairway’s finances shows why a radical solution is in order. This past year, Fairway voters passed by a 64–36 percent margin a measure that was presented as a “½-percent sales tax increase.” Seen in a more precise light, that vote represented a nearly 15 percent increase—from 7.525 percent to 8.025 percent—in the sales tax Fairway merchants must charge their patrons and a 50-percent increase in the sales-tax revenue accruing to Fairway.
Many voters opted for the sales tax because they have seen what has happened to their property taxes over the past several years. In 2003, the average Fairway homeowner paid $377 in property tax to the City of Fairway, roughly 10 percent of his total property tax burden. Had the city simply kept up with the cost-of-living, the average homeowner would now be paying $446. But the city needed more, and so now the average homeowner is paying $668 to Fairway, a 75 percent increase in just seven years.
Were Fairway corrupt or ill-managed, its citizens might grab their pitchforks and run the bums out of City Hall. From what I can see, however, the city seems admirably well-managed and conscientious about its finances. It just cannot keep up with the creeping cost of doing good, including gratuitous traffic stops at 4:30 a.m. and copper-accent inspections.
Northern Johnson County counts eight other small cities with comparable problems and with which Fairway could make common cause, in no certain order: Prairie Village, Merriam, Mission, Roeland Park, Mission Hills, Westwood, Westwood Hills, and Mission Woods.
Although Shawnee and Lenexa still have room to grow, they, too, suffer from excess government and insufficient clout and could benefit from consolidation. Of course, no city in the county is more over-governed than Leawood, but this preening suburban ingénue is no more likely to marry into our consolidated city than Paris Hilton is likely to marry me.
The combined population of these contiguous 11 cities is roughly 157,000, nearly four times that of Leawood, a third larger than Olathe, and a hair less populous than the county’s 800-pound municipal gorilla, Overland Park.
The new name would be a natural: “Shawnee Mission.” Given the school district and the postal designation, most people outside the area already think this is the name. The size of the new Shawnee Mission, its pivotal location, and its still substantial property base would lend the city instant civic oomph.
Best of all, consolidation, if done well, would save taxpayers serious bucks. There would be no need for six animal control offices, seven economic development honchos, eight police forces, nine city halls, 10 lords a leaping, and 11 mayors snoozing. One of each would do.
Northern JoCo residents do not have to look far to see the fruits of family unity. Consolidation has turned their neighbor to the north from a dumpy damsel in serious distress to the metro’s Cinderella, this despite its comically unwieldy moniker, “the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.” Just think what a cool new brand like “Shawnee Mission” would do.
As much sense as consolidation makes, it is not likely to happen anytime soon in Johnson County. The respective mayors and city managers will insist that their citizens would never think of giving up their city halls and animal inspectors. But then again, the residents of Fairway would never have thought to vote a sales tax increase without some serious prodding from their elected officials.
Many reasons will be cited for officialdom’s foot-dragging, but it will come down to Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy,” as paraphrased for concision: “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy almost inevitably seize control while those dedicated to the bureaucracy’s alleged goals are just as inevitably squeezed out.”
In KCK, two guys from outside the bureaucracy made consolidation happen. It never would have happened otherwise. Until some comparable civic champions step up in Johnson County, make sure you come to a complete stop at Fairway stop signs, even those that are there for no reason at all, even at 4:30 a.m.
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