Boosting economic development in Lee’s Summit, generating new city revenues and finding a way to pay for future increases in public employee wages dominated a forum held Wednesday night for candidates running for the Lee’s Summit City Council.
A mostly full audience at the Missouri Innovation Campus attended the forum, which brought together the 10 candidates running for five seats in the April 3 election.
Executives from the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce moderated the event although their questions were not limited to business topics, touching also on the need for affordable housing, investment in the downtown area and, exactly a month following the fatal shooting of 17 students at a Parkland, Fla., high school, ways to help keep area schools safe.
But the candidates frequently returned to the theme of wanting to help Lee’s Summit remain competitive within the region at attracting new businesses and helping them grow.
In District 1, incumbent Councilwoman Diane Forte is facing challenger Robert Dye.
Forte said she wanted to help the council become more proactive in addressing the city’s declining revenues, which have been hurt by shrinking franchise fees and online shopping reducing local sales tax dollars. She also wanted to encourage more people to live downtown where they can support local shops and restaurants.
“We need more density,” she said. “In order for the businesses that are there and for us to have additional businesses, we need more people.”
Dye, a retiree, said his past experience in banking and finance would be a key asset for the council. He said he had developed new formulas to reduce the city’s cost of worker’s compensation and would look to help existing businesses thrive.
“One of the best ways of attracting new commercial business in an industrial enterprise is to have successful and well-managed businesses here already,” he said.
Forte and Dye sparked the only significant friction during the mostly congenial event as Dye criticized ethical violations Forte committed in 2016, which led to her being fined $387 last year by the Missouri Ethics Commission.
The incident involved Forte’s trophy business selling awards to the Lee’s Summit Parks Department for more than $500 without the department taking formal bids. The sale did not violate city policies at the time, but Forte acknowledged violating state law, which she said she misunderstood.
The incident, which included Mayor Randy Rhoads casting the deciding vote not to conduct hearings on having Forte removed from the board, eventually led to the recall of Councilman Chris Moreno.
“It is not easy when you make a mistake and I did,” Forte said. “It’s not easy to say you’re sorry and admit to a mistake and I did.”
“Lee’s Summit needs to have city council members who can work together respectively to achieve common goals for the city and put their personal ambitions and self-promotion efforts aside,” Dye responded. “Character does matter.”
In District 2, incumbent Councilwoman Trish Carlyle faces challenger John Elkin.
Carlyle said her biggest concern is revenue, especially following the council’s decision earlier this month to increase city employee salaries by at least $5.5 million despite not having a long-term way to pay for it. Some council members support dipping into the city’s reserve fund, which is designed to protect the city in the event of a fiscal emergency.
“Taking that out of our reserve fund is only going to last so long,” she said. “We do need to look at our budget and see where we can cut spending, but we also need to find new revenue streams.”
She also said she supports the city’s current policy for awarding economic incentives to new development as long as the city gets a “good bang for our buck” in terms of new jobs and revenue.
Elkin said his engineering background would make him a natural “problem solver” on the council and that he would advocate for an economic development plan that targeted startup companies, entrepreneurs and locally owned businesses. He said he would also like to see wider roads in his district and more bike paths.
Lastly, Elkin agreed that the city needed a long-term solution to lagging employee salaries, pointing out that the fire department has had trouble filling vacancies.
“I was shocked that people didn’t want to work here,” he said. “I want to get in there, and I want to solve that problem.”
In District 3, incumbent Councilwoman Diane Seif is facing challenger Jose “Beto” Lopez.
Seif said she would support both finding new revenue streams and additional cost savings to accommodate the employee salary increase. She also supported continually tweaking the economic incentive policy to make sure the city gets a good return in terms of new jobs and investment.
She said there was a clear need for additional affordable housing in the city, especially for seniors, but her biggest priorities for her district were improving infrastructure and upgrading the fire station on Woods Chapel Road, which opened in 1977.
“The response times are not meeting the needs of the citizens in that district because it is a large district,” Seif said.
Lopez, a credit union manager, said many of the city’s problems, including concerns over infrastructure and employee pay, can be traced back to a tax base that places too much burden on homeowners and what he called the council’s “dysfunctional” leadership.
He said the city should work to attract more technology and health-based businesses, upgrade economic development policies to be more regionally competitive and foster a better working relationship among the council.
“Because of the lack of leadership, people look at their own specific agendas and ideas and don’t collectively come up with solutions,” Lopez said.
There are two races in District 4. Incumbent Councilman Fred DeMoro is facing challenger Casey Crawford for a two-year term, while Donna Gordon and Bob Johnson are competing for a four-year term. The incumbent for the four-year term, Dave Mosby, is not allowed to run again because of term limits.
DeMoro said solving the problem of employee salaries was ultimately a public-safety issue because of the city’s difficulty in filling vacancies. He said raising taxes to pay for the wage hike should be considered only after all efforts to cut the city budget or contain other costs were exhausted.
He lauded the work of the city’s Economic Development Council in promoting Lee’s Summit to potential businesses and said that work needs to continue.
“We have a lot of people who leave Lee’s Summit every morning and come back every night who would love to work in this city but for the lack of a business park or engineering/software company,” he said.
Crawford, an attorney, said he was focused on encouraging sustainable growth that wasn’t just tied to short-term but would benefit the city for decades to come. He added that dysfunction on the council only makes this task harder.
“When potential businesses regionally or nationally look at the city, they’ve got to go in there and have some certainty that this is a stable environment,” he said. “If there’s any uncertainty, they’re not going to invest millions of dollars to build a plant.”
In response to the question on keeping schools safe, he noted that his wife is a school teacher and voiced the opinion of most of the candidates that the city and police must work closely with the school board to make sure they provide school resource officers and other support.
Gordon, an investment firm analyst, said she didn’t think the council should use the city’s economic development policies to “pick winners and losers” but instead make the city as welcoming to new and existing businesses as possible. She said attracting startup businesses was a good idea but required creating opportunities for the firms to support one another and have adequate access to capital.
She added that employees should play a part of solving the salary issue, and the city needs a long-term plan when dealing with its budget.
“At this point, we’re kind of lurching from thing to thing as opposed to looking at where we want to be 20, 30 years from now,” she said.
Johnson, a homebuilder and former councilman, said he felt Lee’s Summit has “gone too far” with incentives and should focus on attracting technology, finance, research and medical companies instead of retail development.
“That’s the type of businesses I think we ought to shift into and encourage people to come talk to us,” he said, adding that employees of those types of businesses are more likely to live in the city.
He also said he felt the city budget has grown too fast and that the city should move to a “zero-based budget” process where individual departments must defend their spending plans rather than just being given an annual increase.
The chamber plans to hold a forum for Lee’s Summit R-7 School Board candidates on March 27 at 5 p.m. at the Gamber Community Center, 4 S.E. Independence Ave.
David Twiddy: firstname.lastname@example.org