Kansas City, Kansas, election candidate headshots
From left: District 2 candidates for the Unified Government Board of Commissioners Bill Burns and Anna Cole. (Provided photos)

Clarification (Oct. 28): The responses here are republished from a Beacon post that was published before the primary. In that post, the responses provided by Bill Burns were added after he’d initially been unresponsive to multiple queries and only after Anna Cole’s answers had been posted online.

On Nov. 7, voters across Wyandotte County will decide who will represent them on a city and county level in a Kansas election that will determine half of the county’s Unified Government.

The Unified Government is the primary governing body in Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. Its Board of Commissioners is made up of 10 members, and it makes important decisions about policing and housing in Kansas City, Kansas, and sets taxes and fees like the controversial PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) fee on utility bills.

In District 2, incumbent Brian McKiernan has decided not to seek reelection, leaving an open seat to be filled by either Anna Cole or Bill Burns. This district covers areas of Kansas City, Kansas, that lie on the northern bank of the Kansas River, including most of the Armourdale and Riverview neighborhoods.

To prepare for this year’s Unified Government election, The Beacon reached out to all of the candidates in the five commissioner races in Wyandotte County, asking them to participate in a three-part questionnaire. These questionnaires include biographical questions, five lightning-round yes-or-no questions and five short-answer policy questions. Some responses have been lightly edited for length or clarity.

Click on a link to jump to a question:

Meet the candidates

Bill Burns

Burns is the retired Wyandotte County District Court administrator. He previously served as the District 2 commissioner.

Favorite place to get tacos in KCK: I’ve never had a bad taco experience in KCK. I tell visitors to our great city to take your pick, because they’re all great. Most frequently, though, Nancy and I enjoy the tacos at Tacos El Tio at 10th and Reynolds.

Favorite thing to do or favorite festival in KCK: St. John the Baptist ice cream social held annually. 

Anna Cole

Cole is the owner of Conduit Consulting, a member of the Historic West Bottoms Association and a board member of the Strawberry Hill Neighborhood Association.

Favorite place to get tacos in KCK: So many great and diverse options in our district — I recommend starting at the La Placita Market in Bethany Park on Saturdays to get a well-rounded sampling of what KCK has to offer.

Favorite thing to do or favorite festival in KCK: Third Friday Art Walk in Strawberry Hill is fast becoming the place to be! Additionally, WyCo Lake is closer than you think and much bigger and prettier than one might imagine. 

Lightning round questions

Candidates were asked for a yes-or-no position in response to these five questions:

  1. Should the Department of Justice investigate the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department?
  2. Should officials be allowed to hold more than one elected position at a time?
  3. Should the Board of Commissioners have limited the mayor’s powers in February 2023?
  4. Should housing developments receiving tax incentives be required to include units at affordable rent prices? 
  5. Should the Unified Government remove the PILOT fee from BPU bills and recoup that revenue elsewhere?

How would you increase affordable housing in Wyandotte County?

Burns: Rent at new construction developments is unaffordable. Our policy should seek to preserve the historic character of our neighborhoods instead of changing that character with new construction. Our local policy should encourage the private sector to preserve what we have so that we can limit the growth of housing costs and preserve the character of our neighborhoods. Our own state representative, Pam Curtis, passed state tax credits to encourage rehabilitating our existing buildings. The UG needs to educate about and incentivize the use of those tax credits to rehabilitate the housing we already have before we start encouraging new construction.

Cole: First, create and implement an actual policy for affordable housing for any incentivized new-build housing, amongst other, now commonplace modern policies. The Unified Government’s Planning and Development is in the process of doing this. Right now, we have zero affordable housing policy. Second, modernize the code to allow for accessory dwelling units, etc. Community land trusts make sense in some of District 2. I’d really like to see more than one entity offering them, however. 

What would you do to improve public safety?

Burns: We must do more to embed mental health professionals and social workers with first responders to address mental health challenges. We need to free up our public safety professionals to focus on public safety. The challenges that first responders face have evolved, and so must our policies and strategies. We have a mental health crisis not just in KCK, but across Kansas. Kansas recently ranked dead last for mental health treatment availability in the United States. Until the state government can more completely address the crisis, local governments must carry the burden.

Cole: At its core, public safety is a health issue. Creating a dedicated professional grant-writing division will aid in acquiring sorely needed and highly underutilized state and federal funds that can be used to benefit many aspects of our community, including public safety and infrastructure. We currently can’t pay to fix our crumbling bridges, hire more officers, provide mental health services or even more streetlights because the “old guard” has led us to the very brink of bankruptcy. We must act now. 

Would you do anything to make property tax assessment more fair?

Burns: As a homeowner and property taxpayer in the district, I agree there needs to be more fairness and transparency in how we assess and collect property taxes. It’s frustrating, confusing and the process is ambiguous for how the state values our real estate at the Department of Revenue’s property valuation division. Reducing the tax burden will be my principal goal as commissioner by growing the economy, encouraging private sector investment and returning vacant properties to the housing market.

Cole: Trim the budget, while keeping essential services. Require annual bids for comprehensive, yet easily understood assessment of our spending. We have a tremendous amount of redundancy. One easy area to look at is discretionary spending. Additionally, we should be hiring WyCo businesses for WyCo developments. Keep those development dollars and subsidies in WyCo as much as we possibly can. We have the talent — let’s use it and retain it. 

What should the Unified Government do to address the issue of rising houselessness?

Burns: We have to acknowledge the problem isn’t homelessness alone, but also an addiction and mental health crisis. The crisis is far too complex to be addressed by the government alone. Communities that are successfully addressing homelessness, addiction and behavioral health challenges have embraced public-private partnerships to develop and implement the solutions. Haven for Hope in San Antonio is one example of a successful public and private partnership that is addressing these very real human challenges in that community. Doing nothing is not an option. I’m willing and prepared to work with anybody who wants to tackle homelessness in KCK.

Cole: Professional grant writers to seek state/federal funds allocated for mental health/addiction, skill training and transitional housing. We must seek all available outside aid while we rebuild our tax base, creating density and infill east of I-635. Audit the Board of Public Utilities and/or restructure it entirely. Nearly a third of my district lives below the poverty line, one missed shift away from homelessness, and we have no permanent shelter. No elected official should receive $100k annual raises during this crisis. We need leaders who are free from “relationships” that keep them beholden to entities that do not serve us. 

If elected, what issues will you make your own?

Burns: The Unified Government is facing an existential financial crisis, so every member needs to be prepared to tackle that issue on Day One. I’ve always paid my bills and balanced my own checkbook in addition to balancing the county’s checkbooks throughout my career. I’ve never defaulted on my debts, and I’m not about to start now. Beyond our financial crisis, holding absentee landlords accountable is important for getting housing on the market. The UG must hold absentee landlords accountable when they abuse and neglect our community, our community’s history and our community’s residents.

Cole: Responsible redevelopment and density — I pledge to protect our wealth of culture, history and diversity, while growing our future. There is a delicate balance to this. I am the only candidate that has the ability and will to find and maintain both. Transparency — I’m not a career politician, but I’m no rookie, either. I believe we have a silent majority who are ready to take a chance on change and drain the embarrassing “swamp” that will bring us to bankruptcy by 2026. Availability — I pledge to hold monthly face-to-face town hall meetings. I genuinely want to hear your feedback.

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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....