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.