Wyandotte County services, infrastructure among top issues in commission races Tuesday

Town homes and existing older houses near Fourth and Armstrong streets have made the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., attractive to newcomers.
Town homes and existing older houses near Fourth and Armstrong streets have made the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., attractive to newcomers. dpulliam@kcstar.com

Voters in Wyandotte County will decide on Nov. 5 who will occupy four of 10 positions on the Unified Government Board of Commissioners, the chief policymakers for a community at a crossroads.

In Kansas City, Kansas, residents want better services and infrastructure — both which come at a cost to the local government — while also seeking relief from high property tax rates. They want lower bills from the ratepayer-owned utility, but ideas on how to get there are difficult to come by.

Incumbents Angela Markley, Harold Johnson, Ann Brandau-Murguia and Melissa Bynum all face challengers. Brian McKiernan, the remaining incumbent who’s term is up next week, will get another four years on the UG Commission after no one filed to run against him.

Most of the candidates gathered at a forum last week at the Kansas City, Kansas, Community College to offer their ideas on issues ranging from taxes to how to recover debts owed by the former owners of the Kansas City T-Bones to lowering surcharges on utility bills coming from the Board of Public Utilities.

Here is a summary of the four races.

1st District at-large

Bynum points to her work on adopting the Northeast Master Plan, a lengthy document to guide development and the overall future of northeast KCK, one of the city’s most disadvantaged communities.

First elected in 2015, she shepherded the master plan along with colleague Harold Johnson, to unanimous approval by the UG Commission one year ago. The plan looks to improve housing, employment and health outcomes in northeast KCK.

Bynum also said that the UG has reduced the KCK mill levy rate, which calculates how much property owners owe in taxes, by six mills during her time on the commission.

She is running against Mark Gilstrap, a former Kansas state Senator from 1996 to 2008. Gilstrap, who did not attend the KCKCC forum, held office as a Democrat in Wyandotte County until joining the Republicans in 2008. He ran for the 1st District at-large seat in 2015, emerging from the primary but losing to Bynum.

3rd District

Brandau-Murguia seeks a fourth term to the UG Commission in a district that covers western Argentine and Rosedale.

She ran the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association (ANDA), a nonprofit that promoted residential, senior living and commercial development. Among its projects was a Walmart grocery store that replaced a contaminated, undeveloped site near Metropolitan Avenue and 18th Street Expressway.

She stepped down from ANDA about a year ago and continues to serve on the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education in Kansas.

Running against her is Christian Ramirez, an Argentine resident since he was 5 years old and an employee with the Johnson County Parks and Recreation Department. Ramirez supports more youth programming in Wyandotte County and in the 3rd District.

Ramirez has been critical of Brandau-Murguia’s role in arranging for a private enterprise, Metro 24 Fitness, to operate without paying rent or utilities in a UG-owned community center in Argentine. Brandau-Murguia defends that decision, saying Metro 24 has been an improvement over what had existed at the community center before.

4th District

Johnson, like Bynum, points to his role in the adoption of the Northeast Master Plan as a key achievement in his first four years as a UG Commissioner. The 4th District includes parts of downtown KCK and neighborhoods to its west.

“I’m proud to be able to say we have the first area master plan devoted to northeast Wyandotte County ever, Johnson said at the KCKCC forum.

A banker for 22 years, Johnson said one of his goals in office was to promote new development in the 4th District. As an example. he points to the Boulevard Lofts, a $12 million mixed-income apartment project at Washington Boulevard and 7th Street.

Challenging Johnson is Jorge Flores, a former KCK police officer who is now involved in the real estate industry.

Flores has said he wants to work on improving neighborhoods in the 4th District.

6th District

Markley is looking to return to the UG Commission for a third term for the 6th District, which covers south-central KCK, including Turner and eastern Argentine.

As general counsel for Merriam-based BRR Architecture and lifelong resident of Turner, Markley describes herself as focused on policy and long-term projects. Among her priorities is reducing blight, a scourge in Wyandotte County.

Markley has championed the county’s Stabilization, Occupation and Revitalization (SOAR) program, a 5-year project aimed at reducing abandoned housing and improving deteriorating public infrastructure.

Markley said she wants the UG to continue lowering the mill levy “until we see real tax relief for our residents.”

She’s running against Diana Aguirre. Aguirre did not attend the KCKCC forum. She previously served on the UG Ethics Commission.

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Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.