Northeast Joco

Despite some consolidated services, cities cling to their own identities

Joint firework displays, shared city halls, part-ownership of new equipment and now consolidated trash collection.

In northeast Johnson County, sharing is the name of the game as small cities fight to save taxpayer dollars while providing services the residents expect.

But if anyone expects any of those cities to jump in with both feet and erase a few borders, they’ll be waiting a good long while. Officials in the northeast say there’s a fair amount of public resistance to the idea. As a result, combining city governments is not a thing that will happen any time soon, if at all.

“It seems to me like the C word (consolidation) is a pretty dangerous word in this part of the county,” said Fairway Mayor Jerry Wiley.

Cities like Fairway, Roeland Park, Westwood, Mission Woods and Westwood Hills have opted to share many services over the years. But perhaps the biggest step was an agreement last year between three cities for a joint trash collection agreement with Town & Country Disposal that began this year and is likely to continue through next year at least.

The deal, which was so complicated it took two years to hammer out, allows the cities of Fairway, Roeland Park and Westwood to save money on trash collection. In some cases, it also changes the types of services residents get.

Fairway, for example, did not have a cit-wide contract with a trash hauler before this year. Instead, homeowner associations were allowed to make their own arrangements. The city had a contract to cover those not in an association.

This year, thanks to the joint agreement, the residents who were covered by the city will see their payments go down. Instead of paying $181.37 per property per year, as they did in 2012, they pay $138.96. Next year, that’s expected to go up a bit to $142.92, said Fairway’s city administrator, Kate Gunja.

Roeland Park and Westwood residents also save under the agreement. In Roeland Park, savings amount to about $9,000 overall, while Westwood calculates over $40,000 savings to its residents. Residents also get some additional perks, including a large-item pickup days and a couple days “amnesty” from limits on household trash.

City officials in all three areas attribute the savings to economies of scale. One larger entity has more bargaining power to negotiate better prices than three small cities, they said. But there are other reasons a three-way contract can save on waste hauling.

Haulers spend a lot on gasoline, and combining areas allows them to set up more efficient routes, said Lisa McDaniel, solid waste program manager for the Mid-America Regional Council, which helped the cities draft the agreement. Also, combining small cities means fewer bills for the disposal company to send out to the cities.

While the consolidated contract may be the most complicated sharing effort among northeast cities to date, it is far from the only example of sharing. Westwood, Westwood Hills and Mission Woods share a building for city council meetings and personnel for building permits.

Animal control is handled through a separate body set up to handle the northeast part of the county. And Fairway and Westwood recently went in together on a reflectometer, a piece of machinery required to measure whether road signs are reflective enough to be seen at night.

In fact, city officials in the northeast are constantly looking for ways to be more efficient by sharing services, said Roeland Park Mayor Joel Marquardt. But residents shy away from taking a step further and going the way of Countryside, which erased its boundaries and dissolved its city government in 2003 to become part of Mission.

The reason: They don’t want to lose their city identity, their pride of place, officials said.

The issue has come up in the past, but “there is a staunch concern in each municipality to maintain their own identity,” said John Ye, Westwood mayor.

“It’s almost like forbidden territory,” said Wiley of Fairway. Residents often fear the worst about what they have to lose from a consolidated city, he said.

For example, some homeowners worry that if a city like Roeland Park, which has some commercial development, merged with a more residential city, the response time for police might increase, officials said. Then there’s the concern that residents all around would have to live with the financial repercussions of decisions made before the merger by people they didn’t vote for.

“You have people who say I moved here for the city name, the property values, and the services,” Ye said. “It’s not as simple as redrawing a map and putting on a new name.”

That said, some mayors were open to discussion. Ye and Wiley said there’s no harm in talking about it, at least.

Every possibility should at least be looked at in saving northeastern resources, Wiley said.

“I am not afraid of talking about consolidation. I think the best thing is to throw it out there and talk about,” he said.