Friday, December 29, 2006

In yesterday’s Star, Yael Abouhalkah predicted that I would be the next Mayor of Kansas City. I’m grateful for that vote of confidence in my abilities as a campaigner. I don't always agree with Yael, but I freely acknowledge, to him and others, that he saved my job for me early in my career in a column beginning with the words “Good job Mark Funkhouser.” The column, with the headline “Waves at City Hall,” was written after my former office produced its first review of the City budget. That scathing review had produced a movement within City Hall to rid the City of its pesky new auditor, a movement that died in the face of the newspaper’s support for me.

Occasionally I’m asked why Yael has supported me so frequently over the years, and usually the question is asked in a way that implies that I have ingratiated myself to him in some improper way. I haven’t. Once in a while he and I have lunch at Cascone’s and talk over issues facing the city in the same way I do with other journalists and concerned citizens. But I occasionally disagree strongly with the views he expresses and I’ve never “leaked” anything to him or any other journalist.

The real explanation may be that Yael Abouhalkah and I share a common bond – for many years we both have annoyed people in high places in this town by pointing out problems they’d rather ignore. But we both recognize that problems unrecognized go unaddressed and become bigger problems. And since practical solutions are almost always moral solutions as well, getting beyond the “happy talk” often also includes addressing social injustice.

Fortunately for me, he has seen value in what I’ve done and now he’s predicting that the voters will see that value as well and give me a promotion. Thanks Yael.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

It looks to me like Christmas came early for the Briarcliff Development Company. This week's top story in the Kansas City Business Journal “Silent deal underpins Briarcliff request,” illustrates some of the problems with TIF. In the amazing first sentence Jim Davis writes, “A request for extra-strength tax incentives to bring a hotel and an office building to the upscale Briarcliff area is unlikely to face serious opposition from the Kansas City Council thanks to an unwritten deal councilmembers struck three years ago.” Say what? A secret deal? What sort of analysis went into the deal? A good case could be made that Kansas City is already overbuilt in hotels and office space, so why is the municipal government subsidizing more? The “deal” in this case would give all the resulting taxes to the developer. If the deal is sound, why must it be done in secret? If TIF is economic development why do we keep doing TIF in the wealthier parts of town instead of the areas that are obviously more economically challenged?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Last night, I attended the Kansas City School Board's special meeting at Paseo Fine Arts Academy, where board members and community members discussed which schools should be closed during these tough financial times for the district. Howard Townsend, one of the community representatives made an exceptionally good presentation. One of his questions really caught my attention. He asked, “Why wasn’t the City more involved with the school districts?”

He made the point several times in several ways that the City -- both staff and elected officials -- should be more involved in the process the district is going through to decided which new abandoned buildings to create in the neighborhoods. He asked, “Why can we build stadiums and wonderful office buildings and not maintain good school buildings?”

He said that the district and the City should work more closely together so that the district’s activities and the City’s redevelopment efforts are mutually supportive.

I think he’s right, and as Mayor I plan to make sure that happens.

One way I know I can be of immediate help to the district is to continue to take a hard look at Kansas City's program to give tax incentives to developers. In the mid '90s, I produced a memorandum to the City Council, at the request of Aggie Stackhaus, outlining the impact tax incentives have on our schools, which depend significantly on property tax.

Since then, my staff and I have produced numerous audits detailing challenges that have arisen as a result of its use of TIF. One such audit produced in 2003 found that:
Despite previous recommendations from this office and its own external auditor, the TIF Commission has not established basic internal controls to safeguard, manage, and account for the public dollars for which it is responsible... Our findings raise serious concerns about developer reimbursements in prior years and about the $228 million that the TIF Commission has approved but not yet paid to developers.
In our review of Kansas City's budget for fiscal year 2005, we revealed that the amount of tax revenue spent on TIF projects had tripled since 2000, from $15 million to $45 million, despite a lack of an actual TIF policy. This lack of policy resulted in instances in which:
  • TIF is used when it is not necessary. Some projects may be economically feasible without public subsidy.
  • TIF projects perform below expectations, requiring additional public support.
  • TIF projects capture tax revenues that would otherwise be available to the city, i.e., sales, earnings, and utility taxes.
  • TIF districts move an existing tax base, shifting tax revenue funding city services to a developer.
  • TIF supports growth within a district, but hurts growth outside the district by a greater amount.
This affects the entire city -- including our schools. And that's all the schools within the city's borders, not just in the urban core.

As mayor, I intend to reach out to school leaders. But, perhaps more importantly, I intend to make sure that Kansas City's tax-incentive program works, so that schools won't continue to be shortchanged.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

McClanahan, Chastain & Downtown

Tom McClanahan and I generally see things from opposite sides of the political spectrum. But our views on cities are very similar.

Cities are natural, organic forms of human organization and predate other political forms by thousands of years. Cities exist because of the innate human need for social and economic interaction. My views are shaped by years of study and by careful observation on the streets and public transit systems of the many cities around the world that I’ve visited while conducting my research on government auditing.

Tom’s column in Sunday’s Star was the best analysis I’ve seen about how to respond to the recent vote approving Clay Chastain’s light rail plan. He writes that Chastain “has transformed the local transit debate by making it undeniable that voters want light rail and are willing to pay for it.”

McClanahan articulates a vital point when he writes, “Think of the typical central business district as a prime-time TV show. Parking garages are like commercials: Too many can destroy the show’s value. Parking garages do not contribute to life on the street. Fewer garages and more people arriving by transit means less streetfront space must be set aside for parking, and more space is available for restaurants, shops and entertainment venues that contribute to vitality.”

There's been a lot of talk about the Downtown renaissance. That needs to happen but it hasn’t happened yet. We are building structures but we don’t yet have the volume of economic activity that we need to maximize the value of our investment. Two things will bring that economic activity. First, we need many more residents Downtown. Fortunately that trend is moving strongly in the right direction. Second, we need to bring much larger numbers of people in from the suburbs every day.

Excellent transit is the only way to get that done.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Snow Removal

This week's Pitch contains an excellent article by David Martin about the city's negotiations with J.E. Dunn to anchor a development project on the east side of Downtown. One of the most interesting details in the article was offered almost as an aside:
You might think that the city would pay for the [snowstorm] cleanup from an account marked "snow removal." But there is no such account. Not this year, anyway. The money will come instead from the city's contingency fund, which it uses to settle lawsuits and pay for other unexpected expenses.

That's how the city conducted business when I began serving as auditor almost 20 years ago. We treated snowstorms as unexpected emergencies rather than the annual occurrences that they are.

In 1994, my office conducted an audit which pointed out that this is not a good idea. City Council members such as Ron Finley and George Blackwood agreed, and they led the charge to follow the audit's recommendation for the creation of a budget for snow removal in a city where it snows every year.

In 1999, we produced a follow-up audit (PDF file) that offered good news:
Between fiscal years 1995 and 1999, $5.4 million was budgeted for snow removal activities while actual expenditures totaled $9.9 million.

In fiscal years 1999 and 2000 the program budget was $1.9 million; an amount roughly equal to the five-year average expenditure... Basing the snow and ice control program’s budget on an average of historical expenditures provides a more realistic budget and decreases the reliance on the city’s contingency fund to pay for expected city operations.

But now, after nearly eight years under the current leadership, under a City Council on which many of the current candidates for mayor served, we no longer have a budget for snow removal.

Kansas City is, and will continue to be, a great city. But our leaders need to stay on top of basic service essentials. That's the kind of leadership I'll bring to the mayor's office.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Early Returns

Well, I've won one election already! Thanks Lasaro!!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Resemblances

I laughed out loud when I saw the comparisons between me and Ming the Merciless and Saruman.

I don't do much pop culture so I didn't know who these guys were - but they do look like me a bit. I always thought I looked a little like Lincoln:





But since he's one of my heroes I thought maybe it was projection or wishful thinking.

Also, back when my hair was black, people used to say I looked like Spock of Star Trek.



By the way, I don't mind being made fun of - which is good since it happens a lot.

Municipal Court

The latest mess to fall at the feet of the mayor and city council is a crisis at the Municipal Court, which the Kansas City Star recently described as a "madhouse." It appears as though we suddenly find ourselves in a perfect storm of problems in an institution that directly impacts the lives of so many Kansas Citians. The article revealed that we don't have enough judges and staff, and that this overstretched workforce is unable to keep schedules running smoothly, so folks experience maddening waits when conducting business with the court.

In a city that works, we wouldn't let problems such as these rise to the level of crisis. Effective governance means keeping tabs on how each area of the government is functioning, and making management adjustments BEFORE they reach crisis level. As auditor I endeavored to bring this level of oversight to City Hall, and, in many instances, the recommendations contained in the reports my staff and I produced were carried out and the city's services improved.

Unfortunately, the status quo at City Hall has been too often focused on day-to-day deal making and not on the big picture of managing a city that actually works for the folks who live here. That's how we wind up with sudden crises like this courthouse mess.

Fortunately, the solutiuon is simple: Effective, thoughtful management.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Neighborhoods

The recent series in the Kansas City Star on neighborhoods was outstanding. Neighborhoods are the bones and muscle of a strong city. Jeff Spivak and his colleagues provided an excellent assessment of this city's health, pointing out the areas where we're in good shape as well as those where we're in need of remedy.

It’s important to realize, however, that neighborhoods are only one part of the story of a successful city.

In order for neighborhoods to thrive, the underlying system of the city has to be in good shape too. Neighborhoods like Ivanhoe and Brookside can have the most active and conscientious residents in the world, but their efforts will only go so far if the larger system of city governance is out of shape. Kansas City’s municipal government is a $1.1 billion organization that requires sophisticated and professional financial and operational management. When that governance is lacking, it shows in our neighborhoods.

That's why we need to strengthen the underlying fundamentals of our municipal government. When we do that, we will create significant, sustained improvements in city services. And our neighborhoods will thrive as never before.