KC Mayor Sly James focuses on crime and education in his State of the City speech

01/26/2014 4:03 PM

01/26/2014 11:20 PM

Kevin Burns attended Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ informal State of the City speech Sunday hoping to hear the latest about crime and education.

Burns, 37, of Kansas City, wasn’t disappointed. James detailed a list of the city’s accomplishments, including the expansions of Cerner and Ford, the construction of a grocery store at 39th Street and Prospect Avenue, “booming” downtown redevelopment and the beginning of the Twin Creeks residential area in the Northland that’s estimated to draw 70,000 residents.

But he focused much of his 40-minute annual address at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church at 4501 Walnut St. on the city’s challenges, starting with crime and education. He said the city’s violent crime rate remains “ridiculously” high, witnesses often fail to cooperate with police and too many “idiots” have access to guns.

“Guns are the weapons of choice,” he said of Kansas City killings. “But we failed to limit access to guns for people who shouldn’t have them.”

James asked for the public’s help in convincing state legislators that a “one-size approach to guns and gun laws doesn’t fit all,” noting that guns are used differently in rural and urban areas.

Regarding education, the mayor said too much conversation concerns adult issues like contracts and tenure instead of whether kids are learning and excelling.

“If we spent all this energy on how to best educate kids, you wouldn’t have to worry about any of this other nonsense,” he said.

Troubled school districts should replicate the success of their best schools so other kids can benefit, he said, and work harder to eliminate failing schools. He said students shouldn’t be shipped outside of their district.

“Better schools lead to better neighborhoods,” he said. “And better neighborhoods lead to a better city.”

Kansas City can improve education by identifying and recruiting “great teaching minds” from around the country.

“And when they get here,” he said, give them the freedom to “change the landscape. Don’t seek just to be accredited. Seek to be the best in the world.”

James also addressed possible changes to Kansas City International Airport, a topic that has riled some residents. He’s heard from people who love the airport’s convenience and others who think it should be torn down.

He appointed a citizens committee to investigate whether the airport best serves the city’s current and future needs, and if not, what can be done about it.

“That shouldn’t create a lot of agony,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

He sought to correct some misinformation that suggests money being considered for airport renovations should instead be spent on roads, schools or public safety.

“The money is generated by airport fees,” he said. “It can either be spent on the airport, or not at all.”

Throughout his remarks, James promoted extending the city’s streetcar system to improve transportation and attract visitors and residents.

“We’re not building a city for the next year,” he said. “We’re building it for the next generation.”

Phyllis Westover, a regular attender of the church’s forums, said James’ assessments of the city’s critical issues were “spot-on.” She asked the first question of the morning, about repairs to the city’s “ancient” sewers.

She later told a Star reporter that pipes regularly break in her neighborhood and that at least one of her home’s three sump pumps constantly churns, even in drought conditions. She wondered whether an underground leak was to blame.

James told her the city has a master plan and that old pipes are often replaced in conjunction with large construction projects, like the starter streetcar line from the River Market to Union Station. He said much of the debt from the Power & Light District project stemmed from infrastructure issues, including the removal of pre-Civil War wooden sewers.

Other audience members asked about the future of Kemper Arena, which James said would have a “clear answer” this year without elaborating; and boosting resources for the mentally ill, which James agreed was important.

The final question poked fun at his predecessor, Mark Funkhouser.

“When are you going to let your wife come to the office?” a man asked James.

“Whenever she asks,” he replied. “And so far, she ain’t asking.”

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