Mayor Sly James seems to be morphing into former Mayor Mark Funkhouser before our very eyes.
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
At first blush this seems like an odd argument to make.
Kansas City voters elected James in 2011 partly because he wasnt the morose Funkhouser, the one-term leader who lost his credibility after battling City Council members and defending his wifes interference with his duties.
But make no mistake: James these days is looking like the good Funkhouser, the one who repeatedly pledged to provide excellent basic services to Kansas Citians and to keep a close eye on how City Hall used their tax dollars.
This is an encouraging development especially if James keeps walking the walk of being a mayor who fights for stronger neighborhoods, not just for a glitzier downtown or more tax breaks for big businesses. A few examples:
• On Wednesday James brought down the house literally. He slapped on a hard hat, got in a large backhoe and started ripping apart a dangerous building in the 4400 block of Brooklyn Avenue. He was there to kick off a proposed program to demolish 1,000 blighted structures over the next two or so years.
• Last week James announced new funding for a plan to repave up to 30 extra miles of roads in the next few months.
• Earlier this summer, the mayor spent weeks successfully persuading voters to pass a sales tax increase to boost funding for the Parks and Recreation Department. The top goals are to better maintain parks and keep community centers open longer.
• James also this summer promoted a plan that voters passed to increase their sewer rates to finance $500 million in sewer upgrades.
• In the category of things residents really hope happen, James is expected to back a consultants plan to overhaul the Water Services Department, one of residents biggest sore spots with City Hall.
Add all of these advances up, and you have the potential for a better quality of life for Kansas City.
Now here come the caveats, and they are crucial.
Simply talking a good game about serving neighborhoods is something previous mayors have done as well.
Yet Emanuel Cleaver in the 1990s and Kay Barnes in the 2000s didnt provide the sustained leadership required to pour enough money into essential programs such as dangerous-building demolition and street maintenance.
James needs to avoid these kinds of letdowns. To do that, he must keep his eyes focused on making sure the city enhances services for residents not just in the core, but also in the often-forgotten Southland and in the fast-growing Northland.
Another big but comes here: Some civic leaders will keep pushing James to chase big projects, including a new convention center hotel. Thats fine, as long as he doesnt back plans that put the city terribly further into debt.
The biggest hurdle facing the mayor is simple to outline.
Whether its tearing down dangerous structures, building smoother streets or repairing decrepit bridges, Kansas City has so many costly problems to fix that its impossible to come up with enough money to handle all of them.
For example, the city ought to be repaving more than 600 miles of street a year to meet industry standards. In 2013, even with dramatically more funds, the city hopes to do around 200 miles.
Like other mayors, James also will continue to woo subsidized economic development projects here. Sometimes they will be questionable because of the tax dollars they divert from schools and other taxing jurisdictions, like the let-me-lay-down-in-the-middle-of-the-road-and-be-steamrolled kind of deal the city struck to build the new Freightquote headquarters.
James must be on the lookout for the right kinds of development, for companies that will pay their fair share of taxes and be here for the long haul.
Attracting businesses that create jobs for neighborhood residents would be quite an accomplishment for James.
If he succeeds in that endeavor, of course, Sly James would wind up looking much different from Mark Funkhouser.