Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Clarification About Vouchers

We’ve gotten a lot of calls since yesterday afternoon about some comments I made about school vouchers at the final Mayoral Primary debate broadcast on KCUR. Apparently these comments have become the talk -of–the-town, even though addressed the same topic throughout the campaign. And the real topic is: Kansas City needs to have excellent public schools in order to be a city that works. I know that words can be distorted amid all the political buzz, I’d like to take a minute to clarify. Also, you’ll find the full text of my forum comments attached below.

It’s true I support choices when it comes to education. But, in this dialogue, it’s very important to note that I added the word “accountable.” This is key, because the devil is always in the details. I will not support anything that funnels public dollars into schools and education systems that are not accountable to the public and fully transparent in the way they do business. Nor will I support anything that robs the Kansas City School District of vital resources.

For instance, I am 100 percent against a bill (HB 808) that is currently in the Missouri House that would drain up to $40 million from the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts through scholarship tax credits that have very little accountability. The Kansas City School Board members I’ve talked with are steadfastly against this, and I stand along with them in opposition. Indeed, I am drafting a letter right now against the bill which I intend to send to Kansas City-area representatives and senators urging them to vote against the bill as constituted.

But more importantly, please note what I said at the forum before I uttered the V-word. I spent the most time talking about the things the city can do immediately to help the schools, and that is doing a better job providing good basic services for the neighborhoods and communities that are built around our schools. Those neighborhoods are struggling amid neglect from City Hall and folks are moving away, and the continuing loss of residents and families really hurts the school district. Likewise, the City’s failure to adopt a rational economic incentive policy, as dictated by the recently adopted City Charter, is undermining the School District’s financial health. The City, which is free to act on its own initiative, needs to step up – but hasn’t.

Second, I said the mayor needs to form a solid partnership with the school board and the superintendent. I intend to do this. As such, I know that it is important to defer to their considerable experience and wisdom on these matters, especially at the onset. I have absolute confidence in the current school board. It’s clear to me that this is one of the best school boards the city has had in the last 30 years. They have an excellent vision for the city with in the recently completed Council of Great City Schools Comprehensive Review. I can assure you that I would not support any school-choice initiative coming out of Jefferson City that undermines these efforts, or which the current school board does not support. That’s why I’m going to speak out against HB 808 and, as Mayor, I will continue to speak out on issues that will have an impact on our schools. We need to work with our schools.

I know this may be a controversial issue. But I’ve never been one to shy away from controversy. And I have never been one to shy away from the hard work of honest, diligent and thorough analysis. Analysis and examination lead to learning, they lead to the potential for improvement. I believe it’s in the best interest of our city to have an open and dialogue about the tough issues we all face. However, such conversations need clarity and context. If you still have questions about this, or any other issue, my door is always open.

Comments from the forum:

I think the Mayor’s Office ought to be awfully involved [with the school district]. We’ve heard a lot of talk about the school district being a drag on the city, but the city has been a drag on the school district. In the neighborhoods where the schools are, often there’s trash, there’s crime, there’s joblessness. There’s real neighborhood-level problems that the city could do a lot better job. You know, infrastructure issues. The city could do a lot better job of providing good basic services to those areas.

We’ve lost over 100,000 people from the urban core over the last couple of decades. Well no wonder the school district is in trouble. We need to encourage people to get moving back into Kansas City. And that will begin to stabilize the school system.

I’ve got two things that I say with regard to schools. First, you’ve got to be an active partner, working with them listening to them, sharing ideas, sharing information. Secondly, I support some sort of accountable parental choice. Vouchers, charter schools, that sort of thing. Because if these families simply cannot bring themselves to send their kids to the Kansas City School District – and my kids have gone there, my son’s a senior at Lincoln Prep right now – if they can’t bring themselves to send their kids there, then I don’t want them to move, because that doesn’t help the school system at all.

(Criticism truncated.)

You know, I can’t believe, given all the trouble that the city faces, all the challenges that we have, how many defenders of the status quo I keep hearing all the time on every issue. The fact of the matter is that what we’re doing isn’t working. Enrollment in the Kansas City School district has dropped from 35,000 to 21,000 over the last 15 years or so. What are you going to do?

Right now, today, if you’ve got money, you can send your kid to Pembroke or whatever. [But] look at that middle class family that says, “I am not going to put my kids in that school district. Funkhouser’s going to try to fix the school district, with the superintendent and with the board, but I can’t wait until someday maybe we get it fixed, when I’ve got a family that is going to move today.”

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Questions - Take Three

What would you do to revitalize Penn Valley Park to make it an active
and vibrant urban park?

The first step toward creating vibrant parks is making them attractive and safe. While I was City Auditor, my annual citizen surveys showed a large number of people were frightened to be in the parks, night or day. We keep talking about the fancy projects downtown and elsewhere, but we’ve got to do the basic stuff. As Mayor, I would work with both the Kansas City Police Department and the city parks department to ensure that our parks not only feel safe, but are safe places for families.

What do you think about gradually eliminating most of the unnecessary zoning restrictions in existence that prevent mixed usage of buildings and "smarter" urban planning?

Obviously I want to do smart urban planning, and I would look at zoning restrictions. I do think mixed-use development is the best way to go. There is an overall redesign of the city zoning ordinances under way right now. I’m a little worried because there has been relatively little public discussion on the topic.

Would you be willing to support TIFs if those projects need the TIFs
in order to be accomplished?

Not necessarily. Just because a project needs TIF support to be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. There are two conditions in which I would use a TIF. The first is when a project clearly produces an overall increase in net revenue for the city. The second is when a project is necessary for social justice reasons. For example I could envision supporting a TIF that would help build a brand new grocery store in a poor neighborhood, or one that would create jobs in a part of the city with high unemployment rates.

Would you attempt to change the situation with surrounding suburbs and
work to eliminate most of the back, and forth competition and fighting
that goes on between our city and the suburbs?

We have to jointly deal with problems that are regional problems like transit and water quality. Obviously we are going to cooperate and work on those kinds of things together. The idea that we will work together to restore peace in the valley with regard to tax incentives is not going to happen. Almost every elected official in every suburban town wants to lure new businesses and jobs across their borders. There has been an arms race of sorts as those officials compete to put together the most attractive package for prospective corporations. I have no optimism that that is going to stop by mutual agreement, so I’m going to unilaterally disarm.

Would you be willing to work with the leaders in Johnson County so we
can work together instead of fighting each other over growth?

I’m willing to work with anybody, anywhere, anytime.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Misleading Mailer II

Another mailer has been sent out. This one is not anonymous, but it is no more accurate in its twisting of the facts. It alleges that I want to implement a new tax for garbage collection.

This is not true. I do not want to raise taxes for garbage collection. I have consistently said that taxes are not the best way to finance trash collection.

It goes against my nature to respond to unfounded charges. These attacks, and the people who send them, don’t deserve a response. But you do, and I feel it is important that someone looking for answers is able to find them here.

Again, the mailer takes liberties with statements I made as City Auditor. This particular charge traces its roots to a 1999 budget review of the city’s fees, charges and taxes.

Overall, I found and reported that Kansas City taxpayers were highly taxed, and the tax burden wasn’t fairly borne by individuals and businesses, some of whom enjoyed significant tax breaks at the expense of others. As Mayor, I intend to study the tax system further with the goal of making it fair.

As part of that report, I discovered that most big cities in the United States charge their businesses and citizens for trash collection based on the amount of garbage they generate. This is the norm, and it is the system recommended as well by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. It encourages recycling and discourages excess waste.

That wasn’t the system we had here at the time, and it unfairly spread the significant expense of trash collection equally to all tax payers, whether they were single retirees who seldom had more than one bag at the curb or large families or businesses that generated many bags each week.

What I proposed, and still support, was a trash fee based on how much garbage each household generates. I said the city would save, conservatively, $2 million a year, in part from an expected 20 percent decrease in garbage collected as people recycled more and were more thoughtful about what they put at the curb.

A version of my recommendation became the City Council-approved, two-bag-a-week system now in place. And it has saved the city, and therefore the taxpayers, money without, I might add, raising taxes.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Misleading mailer

I'm afraid there has been some confusion caused by an anonymous, and therefore illegal, postcard sent last week by what I believe to be one of my competitors.

The postcard suggests that I want to deny health care to indigents. To be clear, I do not want or plan to cut indigent health care. The post card takes out of context and exaggerates a response I made to a campaign questionnaire.

My answer on that questionnaire was based on my experience as City Auditor. In that role, I alerted the City Council in a budget review that Kansas City was the only major metropolitan city that subsidized indigent care through its general fund. I told the Council that the situation put the city at a competitive disadvantage and that indigent care should be funded through other means. The council agreed and subsequently the voters passed a property tax levy dedicated to health care.

I do want more accountability and results from the city's health care levy, which the city allocates to its Health Department and to a number of hospitals and clinics, including Truman Medical Center, Children's Mercy Hospital and the Kansas City Free Clinic.

The current system has resulted in appalling inequities in the quality of health care being received in our community, as measured by infant mortality and disease rates. The inequities break down along income and, even more troubling, racial lines.

When elected mayor I will demand more from those organizations that receive the funding and from the city's own Health Department. I will make sure that the city's health care dollars are given to organizations and programs that improve the health of Kansas Citians. And I will demand that the funds are not seen as "blank checks" by the hospitals and clinics that receive them.

Here is a link to the campaign questionnaire. The postcard quote was taken from the answer to the final question: http://markfunkhouser.com/010507GREATKC.pdf

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Questions - Take Two

Would you work with AEG to attract an NHL or NBA team to Downtown?

Of course I want to see the new arena occupied by an NHL or NBA team, but I would not want to accomplish that in a way that straps the city so financially that we’ve got a team surrounded by blocks of dead space. I am not familiar with all the details of the city’s agreement with AEG concerning the arena. It appears that AEG has 20 percent of the ownership and 100 percent of the control. It’s a shotgun wedding, but that’s who we’ve got, and I’d like to make the marriage work. I’m sure we’ll be able to cooperate to fill that arena and inject more life into downtown.

What would you do as mayor with the city manager and council in order
to attract more big (and small) businesses back to Downtown?

We have to work together to make downtown hip and cool and interesting and fun. I’m not smart enough, and nobody is, to figure this out by myself. We have to include ideas from the creative class, the lesbian and gay community, the business community, and anyone else who might have something to add. We’ve got to live with Power & Light, but we can’t have it be an oasis in a wasteland. We need to see the rest of downtown continue to grow. The city’s job is to support downtown with clean sidewalks and safe streets. What government should do is create conditions to allow markets to thrive. If downtown is thriving and doing well, businesses will want to be there.

Are you willing to take risks on development in Downtown and the Urban Core?

I’m reluctant to be a venture capitalist with public dollars. Some of our current decision makers call it taking risks. I think it’s being reckless. I don’t think you are supposed to be reckless with public money. I’m not willing to take additional huge bets. But the chips that are on the table have to be covered. I have to make this thing work. If any of these city-supported development plans falter under my watch, we’re in deep trouble. And frankly, of all the candidates running, I’m the one most likely to figure out how the hell to make all of this work. We’ve mortgaged the future, and by God we better find money to make the payments.

Would you work with the Downtown Council and Urban Society to accomplish the progressive/positive and ambitious goals they have for Downtown and the urban core?

I am not entirely familiar with the inner workings of either organization, nor do I know the details of their goals. But my general sense of the Urban Society is that they want downtown to be hip and cool and interesting and fun, and so do I. Having downtown be safe and clean and attractive and inviting is absolutely critical to the success of the city given the huge investment that we’ve made.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Answers to reader questions - take one

Would you support capping the south part of the Downtown Loop, and in the future, maybe turning the north part of the loop into a high speed boulevard?

I would very much like to see a downtown that is more pedestrian friendly, and I agree that the freeway canyons on the north and south sides of central downtown are barriers to that. It would be nice if there were a way to redo one or both of those freeways -- turning the south loop into a green connection between downtown and the crossroads; connecting the City Market to the core of downtown.

But I have to say these are low on my list of downtown priorities. We’ve got to digest some of the big projects already underway. I don’t think we’re in a position, at this point, to go get another couple hundred million dollars to cap the south section of the loop. And I don’t believe that the interstate highway regulations would allow us to even consider changing the north section to a boulevard any time soon.

In the meantime, we should concentrate on re-introducing pedestrians to our sidewalks, and vice versa. We should be able to find some inexpensive means to get people walking downtown again.

Would you support a 1,000-room convention center hotel, and a 200-room hotel that could be constructed with the 240-unit residential tower in the Power and Light District?

If the market wants to do it, God bless them. Good luck. But I wouldn’t spend a dollar of public money on another hotel. We are currently propping up several hotels downtown, and we just agreed to prop up another one in Briar Cliff. There is a whole bunch of serious research done by economic pros that show the link between bigger, fancier convention hotels and increased business just isn’t there.

Do you support the redevelopment of the riverfront area near the present riverfront park?

If there is one piece of downtown property that should be redeveloped without city-created incentive plans, it is that tract along the Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park. The city already has built the park and facilitated the clean up of the empty 55 acres adjacent to it. The Port Authority has been seeking proposals for its redevelopment, but I hope they don’t come to the city asking for financial help.

We don’t yet have a strategic plan for these types of incentives. We’re doing impulse buying. We have bitten off a huge amount in downtown. We are talking about another mammoth project for the east village. We’ve got a lot on our plate, and I’d be reluctant to add more right now.

What would you do to help eliminate a large majority of the surface parking lots in Downtown?

I do think surface lots are blight and an impediment to making downtown more pedestrian friendly. But you can’t eliminate them until there is a higher, better use demanded for the property. We have to get downtown rolling to the point where the person who owns the lot can make more money putting building on it than as a parking lot. In the medium term, the way to deal with surface parking lots is to have an excellent transit system that will reduce their need.

Thursday, February 8, 2007


There has been a lot of discussion in the Mayor’s race about leadership. I’ve thought a lot about leadership over the years and talked about it in the classes I’ve taught.

Leadership is the art of enabling a group of people to accomplish together things that they could not do alone.

Leadership is comprised of three basic elements that are rooted in the fundamental nature of human experience. Those elements are: Mission, Love and Hope.

People follow a leader because they think that he knows what he’s doing, that he cares what happens to them and that if they follow him everything will be all right.

Leadership involves two very different but very important sets of tasks. Knowing what to do. Keeping the group together.

Leadership is not about formal authority. You cannot be designated “the leader” despite have been given formal authority within the group.

Leadership is not about command and control. You cannot control a group by issuing commands. Formal authority and command and control are like a battery back-up system. You can use it for short periods of time in emergency situations but you cannot depend on it to provide sufficient power for effective long-run results. And when you use the battery system, it must be recharged from sources of real power.

Leadership can be learned. You have to learn both about the work the group needs to accomplish (the mission) and about how to understand and connect with the members of the group (love and hope). In addition you must learn self-discipline. You cannot control other people if you cannot control yourself. And you must develop intentionality. A leader must plan ahead and think of the consequences of what he intends to do, not only for him, but also for the group as a whole and for individual members of the group.

Mission, love and hope. And the self-discipline to get better and better at it over time. That’s leadership.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Poodle Video

I got a nice mention in Hearne Christopher's column this morning. I could write a little about it, but I know what you really want... The Maria the Poodle Video!

Friday, February 2, 2007

My Economic Development Vision for Kansas City

Cities grow and thrive because of their quality of life. Cities grow when people want to live and work in them.

That’s economic development. Real economic development.

It’s that simple.

Right now, Kansas Citians are not satisfied with the way our city is being run. I know this because I’ve asked them. As City Auditor, I surveyed citizens every year.

I found that fewer than one in four Kansas Citians are satisfied with the value they receive for the taxes and fees they pay to the city. Our rate of satisfaction with basic services lags behind that of other cities in the metro area.

My office also surveyed hundreds of owners and managers of local businesses about their views of city services. And we held focus groups to get more in-depth understanding.

And what did we find out?

Kansas City business owners want the same thing every Kansas Citian wants.

Business owners and managers told us infrastructure and public safety are the most important city services affecting their businesses.

Fixing the streets, clearing snow quickly, keeping the storm drains from flooding, providing a visible police presence, and responding quickly to burglaries or traffic accidents are all economic development activities.

Streamlining processes through technology and employee training to make it easier to do business in the city is an economic development activity.

And ensuring that the taxes and fees that residents and businesses pay for these services are fair is also a critical economic development activity.

The way Kansas City can achieve these things is by running City Hall like an effective business.

The most important thing I learned while receiving my MBA was that businesses thrive when they have a focused and disciplined budget process that sets goals and measures progress.

And, above all, you have to know your customer.

City Hall needs to do more to bring Kansas Citians to the negotiation table. And we need to be honest with them about the progress we’re making.

Frankly, we haven’t been doing this. Kansas City’s current economic development strategy has given business owners the opposite of what they want. The focus has been on tax incentives for a few well-connected developers. Meantime, funding for basic services has declined.

That’s why most of the funding for infrastructure in the Northland, for instance, is going to a few fancy developments and not to good roads serving the entire area, which is what Northlanders want more than anything else, according to our surveys.

In this year’s budget, payments to developers for tax breaks will double, from $30 million to $60 million. We’re also increasing spending on infrastructure, but we’re doing so with bonds, essentially using the city’s credit cards.

Would you run your business that way?

The first step is to take control of economic development strategy. We need to bring the decision making process on tax incentives out of the back rooms and into the public where it belongs.

These incentives shouldn’t be abolished. But, we must target incentives to cases where they can be clearly shown to improve the overall tax base of the city or where social justice concerns argue for their use.

At the same time, we need to make basic services and citizen satisfaction the priority at City Hall.

What I’m talking about here is less a plan than a policy.

Indeed, it’s a philosophy. A business philosophy.

Getting our finances in order. Getting back to the basics. Listening to and caring about Kansas Citians. Every Kansas Citian. That’s what will bring about the economic growth that we all want and deserve.