Four years after he took office as Kansas City’s mayor, Sly James said Tuesday that he has the best job in politics and he is proud to lead a city “that is clearly reinventing itself.”
“Flyover country no more, Kansas City is the center of the American renaissance,” James said in his State of the City speech, delivered before a crowd of more than 300 people at Starlight Theatre.
The speech was the fourth annual overview of progress and challenges that the mayor has delivered. It came exactly one week before the municipal primary election, in which the mayor is expected to handily defeat challengers Clay Chastain and Vincent Lee.
The top two vote getters in the mayoral primary advance to the June 23 general election. The new City Council takes office Aug. 1.
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James recalled that when he took office in 2011, the city’s “confidence was in the dumps,” but he said that now other cities consult Kansas City for ideas on how to fight crime, get children reading at grade level, expand the economy with new technologies and create a more efficient government.
Among key improvements, he cited the dramatic drop in homicides last year, a 42-year low. Kansas City saw 79 homicides in 2014, down from 100 in 2013 and even more in 2012 and 2011.
While homicides are down, citizen satisfaction scores with basic services are up, with significant improvements in 61 categories, he said.
Although the mayor has drawn criticism for not doing enough to improve conditions on the East Side, James highlighted some positive developments, including a new Aldi grocery store at 39th and Prospect, a police campus under construction at 27th and Prospect, and luxury housing being built in Beacon Hill east of Troost.
Sister Berta Sailer, co-founder of the Operation Breakthrough children’s services center at 3039 Troost, said after the mayor’s speech that she thinks he is trying hard to bolster the East Side and that she is seeing a resurgence along Troost.
“I think he’s trying to do a good job,” Sailer said. “But I think we all have to help him.”
James told the audience that the city must build on the progress of the past four years with more initiatives in education, economic development and crime prevention. While he offered some concrete steps the city must take, he also promoted some key goals without providing specifics on how they would be accomplished.
Among the concrete steps:
▪ Voter renewal of the 1 percent earnings tax in 2016, which provides more than $200 million annually from people who live or work in the city. James said this is “Kansas City’s lifeline” because it provides 39 percent of the city’s general fund.
▪ Completion of a partnership between Academie Lafayette and Kansas City Public Schools on a premier high school. That partnership recently was suspended, but James implored the city’s educational leaders “to open their minds and their hearts to more collaboration between charter schools and our public school districts.”
▪ Continuation and expansion of a Teens in Transition program, helping at-risk youths with summer jobs and social services that keep them out of trouble and away from violent crime. The city is also engaging the private sector to improve summer job opportunities for urban youths.
Among the sketchier goals:
▪ More money for infrastructure. James said the sprawling city of 319 square miles spends about $77 million a year on roads, bridges and other crucial infrastructure but should spend three times that amount. He said the city must get creative to find more revenue, but in a later news conference he said he doesn’t yet know whether that will require a tax increase.
▪ Increased wages for struggling low-income families. James called on Missouri to raise the minimum wage and improve safety net programs that help these families, but he didn’t elaborate on how the city could assist in that effort.
▪ Neighborhood revitalization from Troost to Prospect. While James said the city is working with the Mid-America Regional Council, the Chamber of Commerce and other agencies on “catalytic urban redevelopment,” he didn’t provide a detailed road map for how that will occur.