A truce in the economic development “border war” is nowhere in sight.
Yet on other issues, regional harmony is blooming on both sides of State Line Road. The four largest units of local government in the Kansas City area have formed an exclusive club with a name straight out of superhero comic books.
They call themselves the Core4.
Unless you’re a policy wonk or an insomniac who watches local government meetings to put yourself to sleep, you probably haven’t run across the name before. But in the last couple of years, Core4 has become shorthand for regional cooperation in the Kansas City region, upstaging the area’s long-established top policy agency known as the Mid-America Regional Council.
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MARC remains the central conduit for dispensing federal funds and hosting broad discussions of issues affecting the metro area. But as the Core4’s name implies, its members have far more influence in the fate of the region than the other 100-plus communities involved in MARC.
“We know there are issues that spill over state boundaries,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James says. “Core4 helps bring all the elected officials and administrators together to find solutions to those issues.”
The four core members — both Kansas Citys, Jackson and Johnson counties — continue to operate independently and work within MARC.
But because they are home to about 80 percent of the area’s population and share many of the same challenges and goals, the Core4 members have the potential to create change across a region that has been short on cooperation.
“I think there’s value in those four entities getting together at the same table,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders says.
And by a table he literally means a table.
Sanders meets quarterly with James; Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland; Johnson County commission chairman Ed Eilert; and their top managers over lunch. Meanwhile, dozens of top managers in city halls and county buildings regularly share ideas and work on solving problems.
Says Holland, “It’s really an acknowledgment by all of us that, at the end of the day, we’re in this thing together.”
Sewers? There’s no shortage of wastewater in Kansas and Missouri, so why not find ways to share the tens of millions of dollars it costs to treat it?
Regional transit? That discussion, too, is ongoing as the Core4 seeks to revamp governance of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
There have even been off-the-record discussions about shared responsibility for running Kansas City International Airport, not that anything very serious is approaching.
Indeed, all agree it could be years before anything major comes out of the Core4 discussions, but there have been minor accomplishments. Some as mundane as the decision to coordinate the monthly tornado siren tests.
“A great idea that got decided pretty quickly,” Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias says.
Regional cooperation gets a lot of lip service. But with the exception of some successes in the area of public safety and homeland security — think police radio systems that talk to one another and regional hazmat squads — results have been mixed.
Even the area’s biggest bistate success story, passage of the 1996 tax to restore Union Station, fell short of full regional support. Wyandotte County voted against it and does not hold a seat on the authority’s board.
But elected members of the Core4 say what’s different now is that they have a framework that could lead to significant progress, with regular meetings, committees formed and goals set.
“I think the Core4 validates and gives permission for staff to work on these issues together,” Holland says.
Getting the paid staff involved differentiates the Core4 effort from earlier stabs at cooperation. Before, it was just the politicos getting to know one another.
Elected leaders from the four governing bodies met on a semi-regular basis back in the mid- to late 2000s, says former Johnson County chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh, who initiated those meetings between herself, Sanders, former Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser and former Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Joe Reardon.
“We were talking about several things we were going to do,” she says, but nothing came of it, in part because staffers weren’t tasked to carry through on the discussions about transit issues and other topics.
The genesis for today’s Core4 effort came from the paid staff, the folks who tend to the details of government.
“All the credit in the world goes to former Jackson County administrator Fred Siems,” says Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte. “He said, ‘Why don’t we get together and have a beer and figure out a way we can achieve more cooperation?’”
Siems, who left the job in 2013, remembers it as a joint decision between him, Schulte, Zacharias and Dennis Hays, the now-retired administrator of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
“We took the approach that there was no state line,” Siems says.
The state line sometimes led to some illogical decisions, such as building twin sewage treatment plants 500 feet apart in the West Bottoms. One for Kansas City and one for KCK.
Achieving greater efficiency is at the center of the discussion when the top elected officials have their off-the-record private lunches. Seven staff work groups have also been formed.
In addition to looking at ways to help one another with sewer treatment and restructure the ATA, one group is examining how the Kansas City area might better attract youth sports tournaments by having parks departments on both sides of the state line work together in providing fields to play on.
While there have been no major breakthroughs so far, some of the players point to examples where the Core4 partnership has paid off.
Take tornado sirens.
Prior to the Core4, emergency managers on both sides of the state line had already coordinated their regular testing regimens, blowing the sirens on the first Wednesday of the month.
Where they differed was on the backup day, should one jurisdiction need to postpone the test because inclement weather was forecast for that day. No one talked to the others about that, and now that they do so there’s less confusion.
Similar conversations now occur before deciding whether to close government offices for snow storms, says Gene Shepherd, Kansas City’s emergency manager.
“The closer we get to working together, instead of working in silos, the better,” he says.
It was through the Core4 that local governments provided financial support for Kansas City’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to attract the 2016 Republican National Convention. Each kicked in $65,000.
The four also have agreed that they won’t issue certain government contracts if the vendor is delinquent on taxes in any of the four jurisdictions.
“It’s that small stuff that fostered this bigger conversation,” Schulte says.
Bigger in the sense that more than 100 bureaucrats from the Core4 communities will be gathering in July at Sporting Park for a progress report and to talk about the future.
A joint career fair is also being put together to attract new talent to local government.
Again, it’s small stuff so far. But even this sort of cooperation was unheard of when David Warm hired on to head MARC 25 years ago. Officials on either side of the state line tended to distrust one another.
“The conversation has turned on its head since then,” says Warm, who hosts the meetings between James, Holland, Sanders and Eilert at MARC’s downtown headquarters. “Overall we have matured considerably over the past 25 years in regional affairs.”
Who knows, Sanders says. Maybe one of these days that maturation process will even bring an end to the zero-sum game that has Kansas communities luring businesses away from ones on the Missouri side and vice versa.
Sanders thinks mutual trust is growing.
“I think the dynamic is as healthy as I’ve seen it in eight years,” he says.
To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234 4738, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.