McKenna Harford
KU Statehouse Wire Service
A bizarre voting outcome in the central Kansas community of Frederick demonstrated how difficult it would likely be to consolidate some of the 3,800 cities, counties, townships and special districts scattered across the state.
In 2016, the town’s nine registered voters were asked to decide whether to dissolve the city 75 miles west of Wichita. On Election Day, officials reported the vote was 13-7 in favor of keeping Frederick. The problem? People ineligible to weigh in on the issue were allowed to vote.
“The incorrect ballot was handed out,” said Eric Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the nation’s biggest advocates for voting accuracy, said he lacked authority to intervene in the local question. The electoral debacle in Frederick illustrated how tricky it could be to cut into a Kansas governance structure of 1,500 special districts, 1,300 townships, 625 cities, 288 public school districts, 105 counties and 19 community college boards.
Kansas has the distinction of hosting the fourth-highest number of local units of government per-capita in the nation.
“Government is everywhere,” Sartorius said during a presentation Thursday to the House Local Government Committee.
He joined with Randall Allen, who leads the Kansas Association of Counties, in a briefing for legislators about the status, history and importance of local government.
Several committee members said they were interested in the issue of government consolidation, but made clear the impetus would need to be derived from local units of government and was unlikely to become a high legislative priority.
“If (counties) want to do that then they can bring it up here and we can take a look at it, but I don’t want to take away local control,” said Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat on the House committee.
Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, said he would be willing to explore consolidation among local governments due to the declining population, tax-base erosion and economic challenges in rural Kansas.
“I’m not an advocate, but I’m willing to look at it for the simple fact that we find ourselves in difficult financial times,” Phelps said.
County populations in Kansas range from 1,330 people in Greeley County to more than 580,000 residents in Johnson County. In terms of geographic size, the smallest is Wyandotte County at 151 square miles. The largest is Butler County with 1,428 square miles.
“I think I made the comment that if we were starting today we wouldn’t have 105 counties,” said Allen, executive director of the Kansas Association of Counties. “The reasons for creating 105 are no longer in place. Having said that, we are where we are.”
In Kansas, the smallest city in terms of land mass is Oak Hill in Clay County — 0.05 square miles. The largest in size is Wichita at 159.3 square miles.