David Alvey, whose first term as mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, wants voters to return him for another term. He insists that he’s a steady hand to lead during a pivotal time for the community of 160,000 people.
But four candidates think they can do a better job, casting various arguments that they can improve how the Unified Government functions, give residents relief on the bills they pay to City Hall and the public utility serving Wyandotte County, and better the quality of life.
Alvey faces former deputy police chief Tyrone Garner, former state senator Chris Steineger, community activist Janice Witt and political newcomer Daran Duffy in Tuesday’s primary election.
The two candidates with the most votes will advance to the general election.
Recent history suggests a precarious environment for incumbents in Wyandotte County. Alvey himself unseated one-term mayor Mark Holland four years ago. An incumbent Unified Government Commissioner lost her seat in 2019.
This year’s mayoral primary has been a spirited affair. Here’s more about each candidate and their views on the issues.
Occupation: Mayor of the Unified Government (formerly assistant principal at Rockhurst High School).
Base of support: Alvey has raised $28,215 this year through July 22. Donors include real estate developer Hunter Harris, KCK attorney Rick Rehorn, former mayor Carol Marinovich and the Polsinelli law firm. Affiliates of Sporting Kansas City and Cerner Corp. donated $5,500 to Alvey.
Economic development: Alvey said Wyandotte County has attracted a number of economic development projects to the area, despite difficulties posed by the pandemic. Those include a $400 million distribution center near the Kansas Speedway for Urban Outfitters that is expected to result in 2,000 jobs, and the redevelopment of the former Woodland race track into a distribution park.
Much of Wyandotte County’s large-scale developments involve the use of tax breaks, drawing criticism from residents who say they pay the full freight of their tax bills while well-heeled corporations can negotiate deals to lessen their tax burden.
To Alvey, tax incentives figure into attracting jobs and investment in a metropolitan region that competes for these types of projects.
“We have to look at this and say without these kinds of incentives, we might not have any of the development, right?” Alvey said. “Because they will look elsewhere and they’ll find another place that will will do this.”
Alvey said bringing new corporate investment to Wyandotte County can help the Unified Government realize more revenue in the long run, leading to improved services and infrastructure for residents.
“The more businesses and home-ownership we bring in, that’s going to take that pressure off of the tax burden,” Alvey said.
Taxes: The last several election cycles in Wyandotte County have brought a parade of political aspirants who pledge to reduce taxes.
The combined city and county property tax rate for Kansas City, Kansas, is among the highest in the region, a legacy of decades of white flight and disinvestment in Wyandotte County. There have been efforts in the last five years to implement small reductions in the mill levy, resulting in modest decreases in what residents owe on their property tax bill. It also results in less money for the Unified Government to spend on services.
Alvey said taxes remain necessary if residents want better infrastructure and improved services.
“So it’s a trade-off: We could allow our infrastructure to continue to deteriorate,” Alvey said. “I don’t think that’s a good option, because that will cause disinvestment and that will hurt the quality of life for residents. I think our residents deserve and desire improved quality of life.”
Residency requirement: There are rumblings in Kansas City, Kansas, about the Unified Government lifting the requirement that local government employees live in Wyandotte County.
Alvey said that issue needs more analysis. He acknowledges that it’s difficult to recruit police officers and he’s heard of concerns about law enforcement personnel living among the people and their families that they may have arrested. Kansas City, Missouri, no longer requires police officers to live in the city after legislative changes at the state level.
“I’m very sympathetic to law enforcement, their concerns with living in the county,” Alvey said. “At the same time, I think it’s preferable that our employees live in county, I just do.”
Board of Public Utility bills: The ratepayer-owned Board of Public Utilities provides electric and water service to most Wyandotte County residents and businesses. The bill that comes in the mail includes a slew of other charges related to Unified Government services, like trash removal and stormwater management.
There’s another charge for payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT), which funds Unified Government operations. The Unified Government, not the BPU, sets the PILOT rate. The PILOT attracts criticism from residents who open their BPU bill and believe the total that’s charged is too high.
In 1988, the PILOT rate was 5%. It gradually increased to a high of 12.8% in 2010, when it helped the Unified Government cope with the financial crisis. It dropped to 11.9% in 2014, where it has remained. In 2020, the Unified Government made $32.7 million from the PILOT.
Alvey said a 1% drop in the PILOT means $3.4 million less in Unified Government revenue. He said City Hall runs lean financially.
“If we cut those revenues out, where do we cut out a service?” Alvey said.
Occupation: Retired from the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.
Base of support: Garner has raised $21,945 for his campaign this year through July 22. His donors include BPU board member Bob Milan Sr., former Kansas City, Missouri, police officer and councilman Alvin Brooks and Heartland Labor Forum producer Judy Ancel. Garner has donated $19,000 to his own campaign.
Why he’s running: Garner said he was recruited to run and gave it some thought. He said he encountered residents who believed City Hall was disconnected from the community, some who didn’t know who the mayor was or wrongly assumed that Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas represented them.
“The total disinvestment over the years in certain parts of Wyandotte County, to me, it’s shameful,” Garner said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Economic development: Garner said he’s not opposed to providing tax breaks to companies looking to locate in Wyandotte County. But he believes the Unified Government should negotiate better deals.
Just this week, Cerner announced it would sell its office campus in KCK and relocate its employees across the state line to Missouri. That’s just eight years after it opened the campus, which was to be home to 4,000 employees.
“Once you have the leadership that is willing and, in my opinion the courage, to either say you come in here, you got to pay your fair share, you’re gonna help Wyandotte County be successful, or we’re just gonna have to walk away,” Garner said.
BPU bill: Garner said that the Unified Government’s efforts to lower property tax rates are negated by the continued presence of the PILOT on ratepayers’ BPU bills.
“‘I’ve never agreed with telling folks that they have a BPU bill, but then you put charges that don’t reflect utilities on there,” Garner said. “To me that’s kind of disingenuous.”
He would like to see the PILOT go away, but recognizes economic conditions may not allow a wholesale abandonment of the utility bill surcharge. He said a gradual reduction of the PILOT is something to explore.
“So it becomes manageable for people that are struggling to keep the lights on,” Garner said.
Residency requirement: Garner supports a residency requirement for Unified Government employees.
“I think the people that make money off everyday, hardworking tax folks in Wyandotte County should live in the community,” Garner said. “They should live around the people that are paying their salaries and their benefits.”
Particularly so for police officers.
“That’s not going to go over very well in the community — You want to police the community but you don’t want to live with them?” Garner said. “That goes against everything community policing stands for.”
But he also believes the public should have a say in lifting the residency requirement if that’s what the broader community wants.
“If the people of Wyandotte County say, well, we don’t care that our public servants and public workers live outside of the county, we’re good with that, that’s something that I would put on the agenda and I would allow the commission to vote on it,” Garner said. “Or if there’s some type of public vote on that and the people say that that’s what they want, I’m not going to stand in the way of that.”
Occupation: Former state senator for 16 years, developer.
Base of support: Steineger has raised $26,300. Contributors include former Unified Government commissioner Joe Vaught, real estate businessman R. Lee Harris and former Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer. Steineger has contributed $20,000 to his own campaign.
Why he’s running: Steineger comes from a long line of Wyandotte County politicians. He’s related to former Kansas state senator Jack Steineger and former KCK mayor Joe Steineger. Steineger was first elected to the Kansas Senate in 1996. Most of his time in the statehouse was served as a Democrat, but he later switched to the Republican Party.
After leaving politics in 2012, Steineger taught overseas. That opportunity ended because of the pandemic.
“I had time on my hands to contemplate my future,” Steineger said. “And earlier this spring people kept coming up to me and asked me, Hey, Chris, you ought to run for mayor.”
Economic development: Steinger said the Unified Government’s involvement in development projects has resulted in failed projects.
“When the UG tries to do economic development and build buildings, they usually fail, period,” he said.
Stieneger points to Indian Springs Mall, which the Unified Government bought when the mall went out of business. Then the Unified Government demolished and cleared the land at Interstate 635 and State Avenue in 2016.
Since then, the Unified Government has tried to negotiate with Scavuzzo’s, a food service company, to build a multi-phased development including a distribution center, offices and retail. So far, the project hasn’t broken ground after years of discussion.
He also said the Unified Government’s investment in the downtown Hilton Garden Inn hotel lost money for the Unified Government, which subsidized its construction and operations.
Taxes: Steineger said the Unified Government spends too much money.
“What I’ve noticed is large companies in our country are always evolving and adapting their management procedures, their policies and their logistics to be ever more efficient,” Steineger said. “And what I’ve observed in my years of government is government is always behind the curve on improving its logistics and procedures.”
He said a broad based approach to lowering taxes would do more to attract business and residents than using incentives to lure in companies one at a time.
“Everyone will be more attracted just by lower property taxes and lower utility bills,” Steineger said.
BPU: Steineger said that when the governments of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, merged in 1997, the BPU was not part of that consolidation. The BPU is owed by the Unified Government but is governed by a separate elected body. At the time, there was a belief that consolidation of city and county government would not pass if the BPU was part of it.
Steineger said that has resulted in duplication of services between the Unified Government and the BPU, including human resources departments, information technology and other departments that exist in both organizations.
“We’re paying for all that,” Steineger said. “We’re paying double, sometimes even triple, sometimes paying three people to do a one- man job.”
Steineger said taxpayers and ratepayers could save millions each year if the BPU were more closely merged with the Unified Government.
“And give those savings back to the taxpayers in the form of property tax relief,” Steineger said.
Residency requirement: Stieneger supports lifting a residency requirement for Unified Government employees if his idea of combining the BPU with the Unified Government comes to pass.
“I’m sure it will help with recruiting more police officers and other qualified employees,” Steineger said, adding later, ”I’d rather make Wyandotte County attractive enough that our local employees want to live here, by their own choosing, rather than mandate.”
Occupation: Runs The Reola Grant Center for Family Life Development, a nonprofit food pantry.
Why she’s running: Witt, an activist in Kansas City, Kansas, has been a frequent critic of the practices of the political and bureaucratic leaders in the Unified Government. She ran for mayor in 2017 but did not make it past the primary.
Witt has frequently characterized City Hall leadership as corrupt, not transparent and treating residents unfairly.
“My promise is to bridge the gap, to bring the truth, fairness and accountability, the transparency and service from a caring leadership for Wyandotte County,” Witt said.
Economic development: Witt, like other candidates, said that the Unified Government devotes too much attention to awarding tax breaks to outside companies instead of supporting existing businesses.
“Everybody’s getting abatements,” Witt said. “Everybody is getting special deals except for the people that live in my county.”
Taxes: Like other candidates and residents in the community, Witt says taxes are too high. She adds that the Unified Government has the tendency to redirect its own future tax revenues to development projects, largely around The Legends on the western edge of Wyandotte County.
”Those are tax dollars that...had a place to be,” Witt said. “They should have been fixing roads, they should have been reducing our property taxes. They should have been taking care of our seniors and giving us youth initiatives. But they weren’t. Those tax dollars were taken wrapped up in a pretty bow and put out at The Legends.”
BPU: Witt said BPU bills are onerous for residents in Wyandotte County and that it’s difficult for the public to understand how the utility spends its money.
“We have no transparency over that organization,” Witt said.
Residency requirement: Witt does not support lifting the residency requirement for any Unified Government employees.
“If you want to work in Wyandotte County, you need to live in Wyandotte County,” Witt said. “And we need to make it fair for you to live here.”
Base of support: Duffy has raised $6,390. Donors include Tony Gillette, a Republican activist in Shawnee. Duffy has contributed $3,500 to his own campaign.
Occupation: Truck driver for a business in the Fairfax Industrial District.
Why he’s running: Duffy is a newcomer to politics. He describes himself as a Christian and biblical conservative. He moved to Wyandotte County from Merriam in recent years.
He said people he’s talked to in the county have issues with the tax burden and feel like they’re ignored by City Hall.
“What I saw in our leadership really didn’t hold to any type of conservative values,” Duffy said. “And I’m like, why can’t we put some of that into the mix and see what happens?”
BPU: Duffy wants an outside audit of the BPU.
“I want to find out how much money has come in, how much money has gone out, where it has gone,” Duffy said.
Residency requirement: Duffy thinks residency requirements should remain in place for UG personnel in leadership positions.
“How can you represent people in this city and in this county specifically if you don’t live here and you’re not dealing with what we’re dealing with,” Duffy said.
He’s more flexible on whether law enforcement officials have to live in Wyandotte County.
“I think that’s something that we can look at,” Duffy said.