Kansas City Mayor Sly James has discovered that dealing with pay, pension and health insurance issues for the fire and police departments is taking up a lot of his time.
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
So far, James has made several solid decisions regarding public safety, with the City Councils help.
Earlier this year they actually reduced the size of the Fire Department, making a bit of progress in slimming that bloated workforce.
The elected officials this year also approved a pay raise for police, using it to pressure officers to join a combined city/police health insurance program that should save taxpayer revenue for many years. But the Fraternal Order of Police filed a lawsuit to halt the plan.
Now, even more public safety issues especially long-stalled pension reforms are challenging the abilities of the mayor and council members to effectively lead City Hall.
Take a closer look at three of them.
• Today, James and the council will try one more time to get straight answers from fire officials on why ambulance response times have risen alarmingly in the last few months and much more crucially whether they are jeopardizing patient safety.
Council members last week sat through a dog-and-pony slide show about various topics put on by interim Fire Chief Paul Berardi and his top assistants, only to run out of time to ask the really tough questions.
Why did response times not get any better after the Fire Department rushed to take over from the Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust in early 2010?
Should the city change the way dispatchers are handling 911 calls now, as they take extra precious seconds to supposedly make sure they are sending the right crews to emergencies but also drive response times up by around a minute a call?
Does the city need to hire more ambulance personnel and reduce its firefighting force?
Berardi is a smart guy, and could be the right person to replace former chief Smokey Dyer and his my-way-or-the-highway approach. But Berardi needs to get right to the point today in talking about how to improve patient safety the most critical part of his agencys job these days.
• On Tuesday Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved local control for the St. Louis Police Department. Notably, Kansas City voters showed they embraced that needed change as well.
James now has excellent reasons to step forward and provide the leadership necessary with other elected officials, responsible parts of the business community and neighborhood residents to gain local control of the Kansas City Police Department in 2013.
This city does not want to be in the embarrassing position for long of being the only city in the nation under the thumb of state officials.
Thats intolerable, given the need for City Hall to be much more accountable when it comes to better control of pay raises, pensions and health care costs of more than 2,000 police officers and civilian employees.
• Finally, the state-appointed police board recently developed a budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year that, among other spending increases, calls for 11 percent pay raises for officers.
That sounds excessive in a time when Kansas Citians who pay the salaries for those officers are getting no or minuscule raises.
James and the council will have time to deal with the final size of the raises as budget negotiations move on.
However, the proposed pay increase will become a weapon used by both sides in City Halls much-needed attempts to get local control of the department and to reform the costly police pension and health insurance systems.
Kansas Citys politicians must help taxpayers by dealing with these and other public safety matters in coming months.
Of course, making the difficult calls is why they ran for office in the first place, right? Avoiding those decisions shouldnt be an option.