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Progress 2013: Northwest Kansas prime for government consolidation

The time has come to think seriously about consolidating some of the units of government in northwest Kansas.

Progress sometimes requires bold action. I have two proposals to offer. Perhaps neither would prove advisable, but both are worthy of consideration.

The first possibility would be to consolidate the 15 counties of northwest Kansas.

Cheyenne, Sherman, Wallace, Rawlins, Thomas, Logan, Decatur, Sheridan, Gove, Norton, Graham, Trego, Phillips, Rooks and Ellis would be combined into one large county.

We could call it Pioneer County. That name would capture the historical spirit of our brave forebears who established their homes on the prairie, and it would describe the trailblazing nature of the consolidation.

The members of the county commission -- perhaps seven in number -- would represent districts so population centers could not control the levers of government. There would be a great savings in tax dollars by eliminating superfluous positions. We would not need 15 sheriffs or 15 county attorneys. Instead, central offices for various county functions could be established throughout Pioneer County. The sheriff's office could be centrally located in Hill City for example. The clerk's office might be in Hays and the treasurer's office in Colby. With modern communication tools, those offices could serve the entire county at a distance. And for functions that require proximity, there would be satellite offices strategically located throughout the county. Public works, for example, might need 15 locations. EMS probably would need even more.

Another innovative feature would be to rotate the county commission meeting. One week it would be in Phillipsburg, another week in Goodland, another week in Oakley or WaKeeney, and so on. That would require some travel, but it would ensure county officials remained familiar with the special circumstances within all the districts.

At least three significant hurdles come to mind:

* Folks in the less-populated areas naturally would be wary of the potential influence of Hays and Colby, but representation by district should address that understandable concern.

* The level of outstanding debt varies widely among the 15 existing counties. Who should assume that debt? Our fledgling nation faced that same problem and solved it with the Compromise of 1790. Southern states agreed to have the federal government assume responsibility for all state debts, which were considerably greater for northern states, in exchange for having the seat of the federal government located in the South, in the newly created District of Columbia. Surely we also could find our own compromise to address outstanding debt.

* The third hurdle would be tradition. Many people simply would be unwilling to let go of their emotional ties to the old names and the old system. Hopefully, a majority might be willing to step into the future if they thought the change was worthwhile.

So, why take the radical step of combining 15 counties into one super county?

Besides creating a more streamlined and efficient government and producing significant savings, we could leverage this bold action into a great public relations campaign. I predict Pioneer County would attract national attention, and we could promote ourselves as the place that is not afraid to try new things. Businesses would be curious, at least, and we could use some of the savings to create an aggressive economic development apparatus to close the deals.

But if the effort to create Pioneer County fails ...

The second possibility would be to combine the governments of Hays, Ellis, Victoria, Schoenchen and the county into a single Ellis County government.

Two ongoing problems make this local consolidation desirable.

At present, the division of responsibilities between city and county governments is murky at best. This is largely due to having two governments that serve basically the same group of people. We have a Hays chief of police responsible for the public safety of 21,000 people, and a sheriff who is responsible for those same 21,000 people plus another 8,000 people. Likewise, the Hays City Commission governs 21,000 people, while the Ellis County Commission governs those same 21,000 people plus another 8,000 people. This is redundant and wasteful.

The second problem is the model for county government in Kansas is antiquated and inefficient. Despite having good people in office -- which we certainly do in Ellis County -- the individual office holders are elected independently and must answer to their constituents instead of to the county commission. The result best can be described by the old adage of herding cats. By its basic nature, this form of county government necessarily lacks cohesiveness and a unity of purpose. No one is really in charge.

As with my proposal to unify the 15 counties of northwest Kansas, the proposal to unify the governments within Ellis County would also meet with understandable resistance. But the concerns of the rural population could be met by having county commissioners elected from districts. And realize this: Ellis County would not go away. It is the city of Hays and the other incorporated cities that would go away. This consolidation also would require the new unified county government to assume all of the outstanding debt of the existing governments.

To help with the emotional impact of the change, we could retain historical identities by creating districts named for Hays, Ellis, Victoria and Schoenchen. Each could have a representative, with a fifth member of the county commission elected at-large.

Perhaps consolidation is not the answer, but the 15 counties of northwest Kansas are in a state of decline, at least in terms of population. Likewise, the existing structure of the governments in Ellis County is redundant, wasteful, inefficient and splintered.

We can take bold action to revitalize our communities and preserve the quality of life that makes us special, or we can do nothing and leave our fate to chance.

Kent Steward is vice mayor of the city of Hays.