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The Kansas City Star
Mayor Mick Cornett is passionate when he talks about why Oklahoma City is on a roll.
“The true key to economic development is quality of life,” Cornett said Thursday, while ticking off projects the city is backing with hundreds of millions of dollars to improve downtown, rebuild schools and offer public amenities that include a proposed streetcar system.
As it turns out, Kansas City area residents and political and civic leaders could learn a lot from listening to an effusive and motivational Cornett discuss what his city is doing these days.
That opportunity arrives today, when he will be the keynote speaker at the Mid-America Regional Council’s annual assembly.
Cornett, in his third term, has become nationally known for his motivational talks about the importance of offering good basic city services while emphasizing lean governments. He was Governing Magazine’s public official of the year in 2010.
Let’s shed one stereotype right away: Oklahoma City isn’t the dusty, downtrodden relic that so many people might recall from the oil bust days of the 1980s and even early 1990s. Oklahoma City now is in full revitalization mode. It’s on the short list of Kansas City’s peer cities, often brought up in conversations about how well — or how poorly — Kansas City is doing relative to similar-sized cities in the Midwest.
Consider a few reference points:
Here’s one for the skinflint files: Cornett’s salary for what is essentially a full-time job is only $24,000 a year, while his City Council colleagues get $12,000 annually.
By contrast, Kansas City Mayor Sly James makes $123,000 a year and council members collect more than $61,000 annually.
Oklahoma City has 580,000 people vs. Kansas City’s 460,000 and is twice as large in square miles. Yet Oklahoma City has 2,500 fewer local government employees, including 1,200 fewer public safety workers. That’s the mark of an efficient government.
These figures chip away at the argument Kansas City officials often repeat, that it must have so many firefighters and other public employees to take care of such a large city.
Oklahoma City’s overall tax burden ranked 35th overall among the largest cities in each state as compiled in a 2010 report.
Kansas City, by contrast, was more expensive at ninth on the list.
Oklahoma City has far less debt, a better credit rating and a larger rainy day fund than Kansas City.
The key to Oklahoma City’s rebirth has been voter approval of a string of 1-cent sales taxes, raising about $100 million a year, for very specific projects. The city is using other funds to rip up downtown streets and put in wider sidewalks, bike lanes and more trees.
Cornett says much of this work is critically important to making Oklahoma City a place where “highly educated young people” want to get a job.
Of course, we’re not urging anyone to back up the moving truck and head for Oklahoma City.
It faces similar challenges along with Kansas City when it comes to urban schools, violent crime and sprawl.
Plus, the Kansas City region — which is twice as large as Oklahoma City’s — offers an amazing array of amenities that also can attract the best and the brightest of young people while being a great place to raise families.
But Kansas City could be better. And Oklahoma City’s story, as told by Mayor Cornett, is worth learning from.