The Kansas City Council was unpleasantly surprised by City Manager Troy Schulte’s decision to pay for a study of possible downtown sites for a new baseball stadium.
That’s one of the reasons council members are considering an ordinance that would sharply reduce Schulte’s ability to spend taxpayer money without their approval.
The city manager and department heads can now solicit bids and enter into construction contracts of up to $1.3 million without council action. They can spend up to $400,000 on non-construction contracts, or agreements to procure consultants, technical experts or other goods and services.
The new ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Quenton Lucas, would cap at $500,000 any construction agreement without council authorization. The limit for non-construction contracts or other goods and services would drop to $160,000. Agreements to hire consultants, outside attorneys or other experts would be held to $50,000.
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A quarterly report would be required on all contracts let without council approval, and also the ability of the manager or department heads to waive competitive bidding would be narrowed.
Lucas said the measure was not a response to wrongdoing by Schulte or department heads. But it addresses the need for closer scrutiny of city spending, he said, even if that means some loss of efficiency by requiring additional council actions.
He said the council would be better positioned to save money if it knew more about spending that is now under the radar.
“The balance to be struck in consideration of this ordinance is efficiency of city operations versus budget restraint, fiscal savings, and accountability,” Lucas said in an e-mail Tuesday. “Put simply, it is my view the latter factors are more important to our taxpayers.”
Earlier this month The Star reported that Schulte approved spending $40,000 to help fund a Downtown Council study of potential downtown sites for a new baseball stadium. Council members said the unilateral action, coming as city leaders are trying to sell voters on a new airport terminal, caught them by surprise.
“There are things we find out about well after they’re done,” said Councilman Lee Barnes, who supports Lucas’ ordinance. “It would be nice for us to know what’s happening as the City Council.”
Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Wagner said he hasn’t studied Lucas’ ordinance closely, but urged caution when considering whether to limit the city manager’s power.
“Any time we’re contemplating pulling back the authority of the city manager it must be done with some care,” Wagner said. “We have to understand the ramifications both positive and negative.”
Some members have privately raised questions about other contracts signed by Schulte.
In May, he approved a $78,000 consulting agreement with Amy Jordan Wooden, former communications director for Mayor Sly James’ transition team and press secretary to then-Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson. Among her duties are “crisis communications” counsel, along with public outreach strategies for department heads.
According to the contract, Wooden is paid $6,500 a month “regardless of how much time, effort and expense” she incurs.
The city has its own communications team, which has a $1.4 million annual operating budget for the current fiscal year.
Schulte was traveling Tuesday and did not return a phone message sent through his aides. Wooden did not return a phone call Tuesday.
Former Councilman Russ Johnson is paid $125 an hour by Schulte through a contract with the Downtown Council to represent the city’s interests in efforts to repair the aging Buck O’Neil Bridge. Schulte said in a recent interview he was impressed by Johnson’s project management skills on the downtown streetcar venture.
“We were trying to find somebody who could act as an advocate for the bridge but not as a direct city employee,” he said.
Lucas said in the e-mail that the proposal is in line with contracting requirements imposed by city councils in Denver and Portland.
Lucas said he started thinking about the proposal after a council committee discussion last month of a proposal sponsored by Wagner to eliminate a division of Municipal Court rather than replace a judge who has retired.
Wagner said the steep drop in the number of citations issued by police make it possible to consider the move. It would save an estimated $325,000.
Lucas said rather than considering a reduction that could impose inconvenience or even hardship for those who used the court, closer examination of city spending on consulting contracts might provide opportunities for savings.
“We’re very good at finding ways to save money when it impacts poor people,” Lucas said at the hearing.