What happens when mighty Superman turns into mild-mannered Clark Kent?
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
Ask Kansas City Mayor Sly James, because it just happened to him.
Barely two months ago at his State of the City speech, James confidently told the public it was time to better maintain the city’s streets, curbs and sidewalks. A $1 billion infrastructure bond campaign loomed in the summer.
Even after some financial reality set it — such a large program would require a huge property tax increase — James told me in an interview on May 9 that he would pursue $500 million in infrastructure bonds on the Aug. 7 ballot. The city had to get started now on those efforts, he said, adding, “This is a sound, reasonable plan. It ain’t cheap.”
On May 16 I was back in the mayor’s office, at his invitation. He looked subdued, distracted, even irritated.
James had just met with several City Council members, and the big bond idea had been vaporized by then.
Instead, the mayor had discussed putting yet another plan on the August ballot, asking voters to endorse sewer revenue bonds to pay for federally mandated upgrades of the wastewaster system.
Why were the capital improvement bonds dead for 2012?
For starters, several council members publicly and privately had not marched in lockstep on this issue with the highly popular James — as they had done on so many other matters since his election in 2011. The costs of the new property taxes, added to a sales tax increase being sought in a separate proposed ballot question in August, concerned them.
But business leaders who have lavishly praised James had not embraced the bond campaign, either.
The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City had privately told City Manager Troy Schulte and others weeks ago that it wanted to help put together a 10-year spending plan for local government. The implied threat: City Hall wouldn’t get business leaders’ financial support for capital campaigns until they were more confident the city’s spending had been reined in.
In addition, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce had released a letter in early May that gave only tepid encouragement for the idea of boosting taxes to pay for infrastructure repairs.
James in the interview last week put the best face on the decision to kill the bond program for now. The infrastructure campaign, he pledged, would be moved to next April, giving the city time to get its ducks in a row to convince voters (and presumably the business community) to support the improvements.
“We can’t continue to kick the can down the street,” said the mayor — who had just decided to do exactly that.
Here’s the key takeaway point: The mayor made the right call.
Given the uncertain support of business executives, and possible mutiny by a few council members, James would have faced huge challenges if he had been bullheaded about pursuing the bonds in August.
I’m sure he was tempted to do that, given his belief that the city has to take some risks in meeting its big challenges.
The Superman part of Sly James probably thought he could use his tremendous skills as a speaker and negotiator to persuade Kansas Citians to approve the bonds this summer.
But the Clark Kent side of James — the prudent side, in this case — showed up in time.
By backing off the bond program, James prevented what quite likely would have led to some contentious disputes with business leaders and even an embarrassing loss at the polls.
Getting voters to approve the sales tax increase and sewer bonds on Aug. 7 will be a tall order, even for a mayor who’s still on an extended honeymoon with residents.
Waiting on the bonds — and putting a better package before voters in 2013 — was the correct decision for the mayor and this city.
Reach Yael T. Abouhalkah at 816-234-4887 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 tonight on KCPT, Channel 19.