James faces tests to be a game-changing mayor
The Kansas City Star
As his second year in office starts today, Kansas City Mayor Sly James faces a difficult set of priorities.
His upbeat personality and eloquence on behalf of the city’s virtues have been refreshing to see and hear. He’s formed productive working relationships with City Manager Troy Schulte and City Council members, while courting businesses to stay in Kansas City. He’s waged needed battles with public safety employees on behalf of taxpayers.
However, bigger challenges must be overcome for James to succeed in pushing Kansas City toward greatness.
Here’s a look at three tests of his leadership skills. Pass them and the mayor will be rolling toward re-election. Stumble on them and questions about James’ abilities will take center stage.
Other people’s money
Up to three elections calling for higher taxes could face Kansas City voters in the coming months.
To his credit, James doesn’t dance around the need for the city to invest more funds in mass transit plus better infrastructure such as roads and bridges.
Still … three tax-and-spend elections?
James already has indicated he supports a ballot item this fall to finance a two-mile downtown streetcar starter line with higher property and sales taxes inside a special transportation district. But city voters routinely have defeated mass transit elections. James and others still must offer compelling reasons this is the best way to raise the needed $100 million investment.
Also in the next few months, voters could be asked to pass a half-cent sales tax increase in return for repealing several other taxes. Up to half the money would be used to spread around the fiscal pain of paying for the city’s federally required sewer upgrade program. The Parks and Recreation Department would get the rest of the funds.
Still, the result of the vote would be a $14 million-a-year boost in total taxes. That could be a high wall to climb for tax supporters. James has not embraced this idea yet, but it’s expected to be endorsed this month by a citizens group the mayor appointed.
- James has proposed a $1 billion infrastructure improvement plan that could require higher property taxes and the extension of a current sales tax. This proposal has murky prospects of getting on a 2012 ballot. However, it deserves plenty of attention because of its potential to help the city more aggressively repair basic amenities.
Pumping up business
Former Mayor Mark Funkhouser disdained much of the business community, casting a pall over efforts to retain and attract jobs for four long years. So civic leaders have welcomed James’ friendly approach.
But the mayor needs to reap much more positive results from those relationships.
The potential is there. His influential support for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s “Big 5” initiatives could lead to proposals to improve living conditions in downtrodden neighborhoods.
His alliance with Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon and others on the Google fiber project might give this region a leg up on others when it comes to online ventures.
James also must continue to be involved in the incentive war with Johnson County and Kansas officials, a war that’s needlessly diverted millions of public dollars into the pockets of private businesses for no net growth in regional jobs.
Finally, the mayor rightly has pledged to stay intensely involved in improving the Kansas City Public Schools. Turning around its fortunes — leading to a better-educated workforce — would be a real victory.
Policing public safety
More than any mayor since the illegal fire union strike of 1980, James has acted courageously to tackle the wealth of benefits and staffing given to the Fire Department.
As the only elected official on the police board, James has spoken out on the need to stop the destructive “us vs. them” mentality too many at the Police Department have long practiced in dealing with City Hall.
But these moves were only the first acts in what must be long-term efforts to create more productive public safety agencies.
The Fire Department needs to radically transform how it provides emergency medical responses, the great bulk of its calls today. Reducing the wasteful practice of sending too many firefighters on large rigs to these calls is one priority.
James and the council also have to convince the Missouri General Assembly to transfer control of the Police Department from the state to City Hall.
And the mayor must continue pressing to save millions for taxpayers through pension reform for public safety workers plus other city employees, as well as for a unified city health insurance plan with the police.
James enjoyed an often-successful first year in office, demonstrating a real zeal for leading his home town. But plenty of challenges are ahead as he works to become a true game-changing mayor for Kansas City.