A voter enters a polling location at KU Medical Center on Nov. 8. A sign that says "Vote here" is to the right of the door, held open by a traffic cone.
A voter enters Breidenthal Hall at the University of Kansas Medical Center to vote in the Nov. 8 election in Wyandotte County. The 2023 ballot will include five commissioners and the recorder of deeds. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Among the counties in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Wyandotte County is unique for its Unified Government, which merges the city of Kansas City, Kansas, with the county government.

Nearly half of the elected representatives of the county government will be up for reelection next November, including four commissioners representing districts in the southeastern portion of the county. Primary contests in the heavily Democratic county will take place in August.

These commissioners will make decisions affecting residents of Kansas City, Kansas, as well as residents of Bonner Springs and Edwardsville. But the Unified Government does different things for different areas of the county. And after a Unified Government committee reviews the consolidated government’s charter, the structure could look different for the next election.

Here’s a quick look at what the Unified Government is responsible for and how the charter could change in the near future.

What is a Unified Government?

The Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, governments were consolidated in 1997, after votes from the Kansas Legislature and local residents. 

Part of the reasoning was because of the significant overlap between the two governments. By land area, the city of Kansas City, Kansas, makes up 82% of Wyandotte County, and according to the 2020 census, 93% of county residents live within Kansas City limits. 

But prior to consolidation, governing decisions often had to make their way through both a three-member county commission and a six-member city council, plus a mayor. And when the decision-makers disagreed — which was often —  residents would be left frustrated with their inaction.

Kathy Wolfe Moore, who served as chief of staff under Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Carol Marinovich at the time of unification, said that Wyandotte County then was hemorrhaging both in population and money.

“We did not have a good reputation, and people were moving out of Wyandotte County in droves,” said Wolfe Moore, who recently announced her retirement after 12 years as a Kansas legislator. “You could drive down any street and see all these ‘For sale’ signs.”

With the governments consolidated, the Unified Government serves as the governing body for both Kansas City and Wyandotte County. The government is headed by the mayor and CEO, currently Tyrone Garner, who also serves on the 11-member Board of Commissioners.

The other municipalities in Wyandotte County — Bonner Springs and Edwardsville — have independent city governments and rely on the Unified Government only for county services.

Through consolidation, the Unified Government also saves some money by merging certain departments, such as human resources and purchasing. 

What are Wyandotte County elected officials responsible for?

The Board of Commissioners is made up of 11 members, including the mayor, eight district commissioners and two at-large commissioners. The mayor sets the agenda but only votes in the event of a tie.

The mayor is responsible for nominating a county administrator, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the government. The commissioners sit in on interviews and must approve the nominee by a majority vote. They can also dismiss the administrator by a majority vote.

This county administrator is then responsible for preparing the yearly budget, which goes to the board for approval. 

The Unified Government’s general fund in 2022 was $257.9 million, 69% of which pays for personnel costs. The majority of the budget goes to public safety, including fire and police.

The six-month budget process usually begins in March, with budget workshops over the summer. The 2023 budget was approved on Sept. 15, 2022.

The Unified Government oversees typical city and county services, including public health, property assessment, economic development and parks. It has little authority over the Board of Public Utilities, which only needs Unified Government approval if it’s requesting bonds.

WyCo is reevaluating its charter. Here’s how to get involved.

Garner appointed a committee in January 2022 to review the Unified Government charter now that it has been in effect for 25 years. The “charter ordinance subcommittee” has met three times so far and is early in the process of going line by line in the document to recommend revisions.

At the committee’s most recent meeting in November, members raised questions about how the county administrator is selected and whether that person should be required to be a Wyandotte County resident. 
The next meeting will take place in January. The meetings can be attended in-person at the Unified Government building at 701 N. Seventh St. Trafficway, Kansas City, Kansas, or virtually through a Zoom link that will be published on the website.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....