Economic Development

Topeka's Gamble

Mired in stagnation, Kansas' capital city is in a mood for reform.
by | December 2005

Topeka is not the most vibrant city in the Midwest. The downtown streets that surround the Kansas Capitol building are pocked with empty storefronts, and population growth during the past quarter- century has been negligible. Two years ago, the Menninger psychiatric clinic became just the most famous of a slew of Topeka businesses to downsize or relocate. Local government has made matters worse in recent years, with a series of officeholders--a mayor, a county treasurer, a sheriff and a municipal judge--all having been indicted or removed from office.

But Topeka's sorry track record has created an environment fertile for bold experimentation. Citizens in 2000 decided to increase the sales tax to pay for infrastructure and economic development. That move has been credited with the creation or retention of about 5,000 central-city jobs. Since then, the tax incentive program has been doubled and extended for 12 more years. In 2004, residents voted to move from the strong-mayor form of government to a council-manager format--bucking a national trend and signaling what they thought about the quality of their recent mayors.

And right now, Topeka is deciding whether to merge with surrounding Shawnee County. A three-week mail-in voting period comes to an end December 15. For the plan to take effect, majorities have to approve the measure both within the city limits--which appears to be no problem--and in the outlying county. Momentum is swinging toward passage, with high-profile support from the local business community and Governor Kathleen Sebelius. There is little organized opposition. The League of Kansas Municipalities is about the only significant player to have expressed doubts.

It's essentially a political merger rather than a full governmental consolidation. A county council and an appointed county administrator post would be created, and some functions, such as finance and legal services, would be combined, but politically touchy issues such as fire and public safety would be left to the new government to work out. Townships in Shawnee County would stay intact, neutralizing the kind of turf jealousies that have torpedoed merger attempts elsewhere. Property tax rates would be frozen for five years, to ease concerns among rural voters that they might somehow end up liable for Topeka's fiscal problems.

Merger desires in Topeka were fanned by the recent success of Kansas City, Kansas, and surrounding Wyandotte County, which merged in 1997. Long a bastion of unemployment, Wyandotte has become an economic driver for the state, landing big businesses that include a NASCAR speedway. "It's created a wonderful economic climate for them," says Tom Wright, who chaired the commission that recommended consolidation for Topeka.

Can a merger of governments lift Topeka out of the doldrums? Maybe not, but it's worth a try. "We really need to consolidate the leadership," says Joan Wagnon, Kansas' secretary of revenue and a former Topeka mayor. "We've had such animosity between the city and the county."

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