TOPEKA — Currently, the White Clay Watershed District No. 26 is located within Atchison County, and is responsible for all the lakes and dams in the area as its own separate government entity. The Senate Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government heard a bill that would dissolve the Watershed District by allowing the City of Atchison to absorb it.

HB 2188 would then pass the responsibilities of maintaining and repairing of all watershed lakes, dams, and other projects of the Watershed District to the City of Atchison, according to Senior Assistant Revisor of Statutes Mike Heim. The bill would also amend tax levy laws so that there are no tax increases as a result of the dissolution. It would help taxpayers save money in the long run.

Rep. John Eplee (R-Atchison) requested the bill initially be introduced to the House Committee on Local Government. In his testimony before the Senate Committee, Eplee said it is a

straightforward bill with no consequences. The Watershed District came into existence after major flooding occurred in Atchison in 1958 and 1959. That’s why 29 watershed dams were constructed, Eplee said.

However, he said that over time, Atchison has taken over ownership of all dams formerly owned by the Watershed Authority. For many years, the Watershed District has not been functioning as it should and Eplee said its chairman has agreed to the watershed being absorbed by Atchison.

“[This bill] promotes what good policy should be about — less government. This is a simple governance bill that absorbs one unit of government into another unit,” Eplee said. “It makes government more efficient. In other words, less is more.”

Joe Warren, director of Administrative Services for the City of Atchison, also testified in favor of the bill. He said there is a Watershed District board that “exists more in theory than practice.” The board’s authority and actions are limited, and it’s been increasingly challenging to find board members and have enough attendance at meetings, Warren said. The City staff ends up being responsible for the Watershed District anyway, he said.

“The City of Atchison and the Watershed Board have been able to maintain this relationship over the years, but with some unnecessary headaches, costs and demands on staff time,” Warren said.

Warren also said that because the Watershed District is financially separate from Atchison, it lacks the funds that the city has and cannot pursue large projects. With HB 2188, Atchison could “program a capital improvement plan for watershed infrastructure,” the bill said, without “putting an undue burden on local taxpayers.”

Trey Cocking, the deputy director for the League of Kansas Municipalities, was another supporter of the bill. In his written testimony, he said the HB 2188 amends the tax lid so that the “levy increase does not exceed the levy of the dissolved taxing entity.”

“The passage of this tax lid modification, over time, should result in less expense to taxpayers as administrative expenses will be reduced,” he wrote.  

There were no opponents to the bill.

If enacted, the bill would be effective January 1, 2020. Currently, Kansas has 88 watershed districts, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

As stated by the bill’s fiscal note, the League of Kansas Municipalities and the Kansas Association of Counties reported that HB 2188 would have no fiscal effect. The note also stated that savings from amending tax levy laws cannot be estimated.

The Kansas Water Office, Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture also reported that enactment of the bill would have no fiscal effect on Kansas’ expenditures or revenues.

The bill was first heard by the House on Feb. 14 and was placed on the Consent Calendar. The Consent Calendar is usually reserved for items considered non-controversial and do not require discussion. The House passed the bill 125-0 on March 19.

After the hearing was closed, the committee voted on a motion to recommend the bill be passed and placed on the Senate Consent Calendar. On March 26, HB 2188 passed the Senate 39-0. On April 2, the bill was presented to Governor Laura Kelly.

Angel Tran is a University of Kansas senior from Wichita majoring in journalism.

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