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Wyandotte mayor's race, with much at stake, takes shape

Five candidates emerged Tuesday to be the next mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. Now the question is: Can the new mayor continue the county’s dramatic resurgence?

Already leaders point to a series of decisions the next mayor will help make to shape the road ahead for a county buoyed by the bold choice to build Kansas Speedway near the county’s western border.

The next mayor must ensure that the Google Fiber project pays rich dividends for entrepreneurs and county residents alike.

And the new mayor will face a series of decisions about what to do with a windfall of millions of dollars a year headed the county’s way after bonds are paid off for western Wyandotte County development.

“There’s a lot of momentum,” said Kansas state Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat and once a top aide to former Mayor Carol Marinovich. “People are really proud of what’s happened in Wyandotte County. There’s a lot at stake.”

The five candidates who emerged by Tuesday’s noon deadline were Unified Government commissioners Nathan Barnes, Ann Murguia and Mark Holland; businessman and activist Cordell Meeks; and Janice Witt, who’s sought other offices in recent years.

Some longtime political observers in the county said they were surprised more candidates didn’t file. Several current or former state lawmakers, including Sen. David Haley, former Sen. Chris Steineger and state Rep. Tom Burroughs, had expressed interest, but ultimately backed away.

The five have about a month until the Feb. 26 primary. The top two finishers will then square off in an April 2 general election. Most observers expect an aggressive campaign in the bare-knuckle traditions of Wyandotte County politics.

All of the electioneering will take place on a sharply truncated schedule that outgoing Mayor Joe Reardon largely dictated with his surprising Jan. 9 decision to not seek a third term. It left candidates eager to succeed him with little time to mount countywide campaigns and raise money.

That’s a sharp contrast to the scene eight years ago when Marinovich opted not to seek a third, four-year term. Marinovich had made her plans well-known in advance with the result that the mayor’s race stretched for more than seven months.

“There was a full field by Christmas,” said Rick Rehorn, who won the primary but lost the general election to Reardon. “There were TV shows and all kinds of debates.”

This year, insiders give the early edge to Holland and Murguia to emerge from the primary.

Holland is said to have Reardon’s quiet backing, Marinovich’s support and encouragement from much of the county’s political establishment. Murguia touts her commission work and one of the county’s best-known political names.

But Barnes was the first to file, and he and Meeks have both promised spirited campaigns.

“Now that Google and Cerner” — the health care record-keeping company is pouring millions into an office park — “have shown the world that Wyandotte County is the place to be, it’s important to leverage that energy,” Meeks said during his campaign kickoff.

How to spread the benefit of newly freed tax revenues to boost the fortunes of the older neighborhoods in eastern Wyandotte County is just one issue the new mayor will face. Sky-high property tax rates, developers often say, have bottled up new construction for years.

In 2011, Kansas City, Kan., carried the fourth-highest property tax rate of Kansas’ 25 largest cities — behind only Parsons, Fort Scott and Dodge City. What’s more, the rates are far higher than nearby Overland Park, Leawood, Lenexa and Shawnee.

“I believe that (the high property tax rate) is our Achilles’ heel,” Wolfe Moore said.

Pressure to increase those rates will grow as the state of Kansas cuts income taxes and places more responsibility on local governments to fund services.

“The state is not going to be helping us,” said former state Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat. “It’s up to us to figure out how to pay for those things and still give tax relief to the people who live here.”

But the county appears to have a fighting chance to achieve that goal. The development boom inspired by the opening of the Speedway in 2001 has continued.

But the big change comes in late 2016 or early 2017 when the next mayor’s term winds down. That’s when the city will finish paying off bonds for construction in the West Village area that now consume $12 million to $15 million a year. The mayor will have a big say in how that money gets redirected.

The county could use the money to cut property taxes or improve infrastructure in the poorer, eastern Wyandotte County neighborhoods. Or it could use the money to attract still more development to continue the western Wyandotte boom.

“Tax relief,” Kultala said, “is critical.”

Said Rehorn, “The day those bonds are paid off is going to be glorious time for Wyandotte County.

“Our county once had nothing going for it. Now we can say we have something going for us. We need to build on that.”