Over the last 10 days, the new Kansas City Council has been going through City Hall boot camp.
The city staff has inundated the 12 council members with reams of information about the budget, public safety and dozens of other issues that will confront them over the next four years.
The fact that nine of the members are council newcomers this term brings up the positive possibility that they will be able to bring fresh approaches to solving old problems.
This council needs to get the city’s finances in better shape, make wiser investments in neighborhood improvement programs and more closely question tax breaks for economic development projects.
Yes, members of the past council — under the effective guidance of Mayor Sly James — properly handled many of the matters put on their plates.
But there’s no time for the status quo, and that starts with being even better stewards of the hundreds of million of dollars that taxpayers send to City Hall.
The council’s finance committee is led by returning council member and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, but it also has three newcomers: Jolie Justus, Lee Barnes and Kevin McManus.
Finance Director Randy Landes this week rushed through plenty of the city’s familiar woes for the panel.
The tax-base isn’t growing quickly. The debt load is high. Pension costs are soaring. And plenty of infrastructure needs to be maintained south of the river and built north of the river in a sprawling city.
Oh, and that’s after the city has shed hundreds of employees in most departments except police and fire in the last decade, along with not giving out pay raises this year.
Clearly, the new council must more closely examine the operations of the two public safety departments, highly rated services that gobble up more than half of the general fund.
The Fire Department’s long-promised plan to smoothly integrate ambulance and fire protection is still being put in place. The agency has spent far too much on overtime in recent years, raising questions about why it can’t more effectively use its personnel.
The Police Department has made progress, but not nearly enough, in working with the city staff to find ways to cooperate and essentially reduce costly duplication of services in fields such as information technology and human resources. Unfortunately, because Kansas City is the only U.S. city without local control of its police, the council is handicapped in insisting on bolder changes by both the city and law enforcement staffs to more efficiently use tax dollars.
On the neighborhood front, it’s good to see that newcomers Quinton Lucas and Alissia Canady — along with Katheryn Shields, back on the council after a two-decade absence — already are focused on the fact that it will take innovative plans to reduce vacant housing and build new units in the urban core.
Finally, the city’s economic development efforts are at a crossroads.
As committee chair Scott Taylor and others heard this week, the city has plenty of rules governing how and when to hand out taxpayer incentives. Still, the city continues to give up plenty of funds with these public subsidies; about $60 million a year in tax revenue is diverted to businesses, Landes noted.
The council needs to insist that developers looking for assistance bring in projects that can produce the most jobs and in turn lead to new residents and demand for new housing.
This new council will have plenty of opportunities to make excellent — or questionable — decisions on how city government can more smoothly serve the people of Kansas City.