Topekans should vote yes for their future

Sam Hartle

This past summer, USA Today did an article comparing median housing prices during a 10-year period (1994-2004) for 160 communities nationwide. During this period, median housing prices increased by 12.5 percent nationally. Of the 160 communities sampled, only two saw the value of their housing decline – one of which was Topeka. From 1994-2004, the median value of houses in the Topeka metropolitan area lost 2.3 percent. Compared with the national average of an increase of 12.5 percent, Topeka’s housing values effectively lost 14.8 percent in value.

Whether looked at in terms of housing prices, population gains or employment figures, the status-quo in Topeka just doesn’t measure up.

While Topeka’s growth during the past 15 years has been anemic at best, other communities in the Midwest have benefited from strong growth. Kansas City, Denver, Des Moines, Omaha and smaller communities such as Lawrence and Colorado Springs have all proven that, with the right mix of factors, communities in the Midwest can be successful. The consolidation of the governments of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County has proven successful with the growth of Village West area, which includes the Kansas Speedway and Cabela’s. Such economic growth has increased the tax base with which Kansas City can use to offer better amenities to those looking to relocate to the area.

Enter the current movement to combine the governments of Topeka and Shawnee County. Proponents of the ballot measure to consolidate the governments mention the same thing that facts about the Topeka metro area suggest: the current state of affairs just isn’t getting the job done.

Opponents of the consolidation plan cite the fact that the two largest budgetary divisions of government, the Topeka Police Department and the Shawnee County Sheriff won’t be combined. Those opposed to the ballot measure also cite the plan’s vagueness as a reason to vote against.

Since Topeka and Shawnee County incorporated more than 150 years ago, there have been a total of zero attempts to consolidate the two governments. The opponents’ argument against the current consolidation plan supposes that a new ballot measure, in which more things are spelled out and more agencies are consolidated will be introduced within a few years. While that’s entirely possible, the track record of city/county consolidation indicates that a new and improved measure probably won’t happen in the near future.

I’ll be the first to admit that, based on what I’ve seen of the consolidation measure, it would help if the measure was more specific and if more agencies were consolidated. Further, the concept of approving the consolidation on faith that it might work out in the end isn’t a very good argument to approve the measure.

However, Topeka needs to do something to turn things around, and the consolidation plan allows both the city and the county to do just that. For that reason alone, voters need to approve the ballot measure to consolidate the two governments. Sure, not everything is perfect, but assuming that we hold our elected officials accountable, let’s approve the plan now and then when and where changes need to be made, citizens can demand those changes through electing the right individuals.

This is a step in Topeka’s history that will mark whether the city will become competitive or continue to be an also-ran of old industrial Midwest communities that lost their way.