Mark Holland’s first term as mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., was spent pushing economic development projects that he says created new jobs, whittled away at unemployment and helped clear blight.
Next week, Wyandotte County voters will signal how satisfied they are with Holland’s performance when he faces off in a primary against four opponents who say they can better deliver on two pressing needs: growth east of Interstate 635 and property tax relief, both of which are enduring criticisms of the Unified Government.
David Alvey, an at-large director on the Board of Public Utilities, and Kansas Sen. David Haley, who has twice run for mayor and lost, are likely the strongest candidates to challenge Holland in a November general election.
The primary narrows the field to two candidates.
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Janice Grant Witt, a financial services broker who has run for the office before, and D. Keith Jordan, a radio personality known as T-Bone on the Johnny Dare morning show on KQRC-FM, have also filed to run.
Holland, a United Methodist pastor, said he decided to run for re-election more than a year ago to help continue several initiatives launched during his tenure, including a $1.7 million investment to address urban blight and a collaborative program with Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools to reduce student homelessness.
More than $2.8 billion dollars in economic development and 11,000 jobs have been realized during his tenure, Holland said. And he’s particularly proud of the Unified Government’s efforts to enroll 16,000 people in the Affordable Care Act health care programs and livestream and digitize its meetings and minutes for public review.
“When I think about the progress we are making, we are really reaping the benefits of the decision to consolidate the government 20 years ago,” Holland said.
But some of the county’s most successful economic development projects — such as the Village West shopping center funded by sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds — have been used by Holland’s opponents to scrutinize the mayor’s commitment to jump-starting growth in other parts of the county.
“It’s clear that the status quo is business as usual, and business as usual — whether it’s Mr. Alvey or Mr. Holland — means little for growth for villages east, north and south,” said Haley, who clarified that Village West is an “economic engine” that shouldn’t be neglected, but “for the rest of the county, we need growth.”
He characterized Holland and Alvey as out of touch with the ordinary person and said they were running on their names and well-financed campaigns.
“We have two titans, heavily financed, two elephants, two giants wrestling,” Haley said. “While they wrestle, should either one of them in November (defeat) me, it’s the small, the meek, the grassroots that will suffer the most.”
Holland resists the idea that the Unified Government has focused on development in and around Village West to the exclusion of other areas, even if “there’s no question that private investors are investing in the Village West faster than urban areas.”
Holland said the city is pushing multiple developments in areas throughout the county, and cited Northeast and Rosedale master plans as examples.
“We have master plans to change the economy and leverage development in different areas,” Holland said. “I think there is this notion that (development) is mutually exclusive.”
Holland stressed that plans to develop urban and blighted areas of the county are in the works, even if progress is slow. One of his initiatives — a multimillion dollar “healthy campus” downtown that includes a grocery store and YMCA — has progressed slowly as the Unified Government works to gather public feedback, make plans with real estate companies, build and fund the project.
“That’s probably my biggest frustration for my first term,” Holland said. “Trying to push a program forward and manage people's expectations on a really challenging project.”
The Village West development, built to accompany the Kansas Speedway in what had previously been a sparse development in western Wyandotte County, was successful enough to pay off its STAR bond debt earlier than predicted. The last STAR bond debt payment was made on Dec. 1.
That freed up $12 million in extra sales tax revenue for Wyandotte County. The Unified Government decided to earmark $2.1 million of that windfall to cut Kansas City, Kan.’s mill levy rate by 2 mills. It resulted in small savings for residents, who often complain about the city’s high property tax rates — at 80.6 mills, city’s mill levy is easily the highest on the Kansas side of the region.
Holland has pledged to do the same this summer; the 2018 Unified Government budget includes another mill levy reduction. Holland’s campaign touts property tax reductions as a win for the county.
But many say that the savings are not enough. The average Kansas City, Kan., resident saved roughly $20 a year on property taxes from last year’s decision to reduce the mill levy.
Holland has said cutting more swiftly would be reckless and that cutting taxes must be obtained through a multipronged effort. Alvey says the government must figure out better solutions.
“People feel like the Unified Government is not responsive to their needs and certainly not listening to the high tax burden,” Alvey said.
A longtime Rockhurst High School dean from a prominent Kansas City, Kan., family, Alvey more recently has served as an assistant principal in charge of faculty formation at the high school.
“My entire professional career has basically revolved around creating fair processes to identify and solve problems,” Alvey said. “I’ve always been in positions where I’ve been asked to improve the culture and the way things work.”
Alvey, who said he had been eyeing mayoral races for 12 years but ultimately chose to support other candidates in past cycles, said his experiences working with Holland as a member and former president of the Board of Public Utilities inspired him to run. He saw examples of infrastructure projects promoted by Holland he felt were excessively expensive as well as times he felt Holland and the government weren’t transparent with the public about costs.
“My whole purpose here is, for government and everybody at the UG and BPU, our job is to fulfill promises and provide quality services with the least burden on the resident, whether its taxes or fees or unnecessary red tape,” Alvey said.
Holland defended his approach during his term, saying that Kansas City, Kan., has experienced a resurgence since the consolidation of the city and Wyandotte County governments in 1997.
“We have been experiencing a tremendous renaissance in the past 20 years,” Holland said. “We cannot let up on our aggressive push to renew and revitalize our community.”