Debating on Kansas City’s east side Tuesday night, both candidates for Kansas City mayor promised more city investment in historically under-served neighborhoods east of Troost and more judicious use of tax incentives to benefit distressed communities.
Quinton Lucas and Jolie Justus, both sitting members of the City Council, faced off in the second in a series of six debates hosted by The Star in each of the City Council districts. The first was held over the weekend in the Northland.
The forum, held in Lucas’ district at the Bob Mohart Center at Linwood Boulevard and Wayne Avenue, drew a crowd of nearly 100 people. During the citizen-led portion of the program, they peppered council members with questions about housing, economic development and issues on the city’s east side.
Both promised a renewed focus on distressed parts of the city. But the focus on issues on Lucas’ home turf appeared to give him an edge. The 3rd District at-large member was able to draw on his advocacy of housing ordinances and limits on hefty tax incentives while also telling his personal story of growing up on the east side.
He said Kansas City needed to provide its basic services and create opportunity, especially for those in disadvantaged parts of the city.
“The answers aren’t in Jefferson City,” Lucas said. “They aren’t in board rooms downtown. They’re our neighborhoods.”
Justus recounted her work as a pro bono attorney for Shook, Hardy & Bacon to speak to issues of housing and transit, which she said were barriers to steady employment for the families she represented. She said as she knocked on doors from south Kansas City to its northern edges, she saw “pockets of things that we’re doing right,” but parts of the city that weren’t improving.
“If we don’t increase the income among everybody across the city, if we don’t start to decrease unemployment in our black and brown zip codes, then we’re never going to make a dent in this.”
With a month to the general election, the two finalists have started to slip the beginnings of attack lines into their comments.
Lucas frequently borrows Justus’ references to bringing stakeholders to the table and collaborating on issues to suggest that she is not a decisive leader. He on the other hand, says he gets things done. Justus, meanwhile, called into question his proposal to fund affordable housing and positioned herself as direct and forthcoming about what she supports.
Several of the debate questions centered on investment on the city’s east side, whether through tax incentive or otherwise.
The incentives Kansas City has awarded downtown and in the Crossroads for years, Lucas said, amount to “trickle-down economic development,” which he said didn’t work.
“It is a policy that I think has been built upon disrespect and disinterest in our core city school district, Kansas City Public schools,” Lucas said.
He said the city needed to fundamentally change the way it awards incentives and that they should not go to parts of the city that aren’t economically distressed.
“The thing is if you’re a developer and we’re going to give you a 100 percent property tax abatement in the wealthiest part of the city, why would you build on the east side?”
Justus said the city’s incentive programs had created a renaissance downtown, but conceded they had not been used as heavily in economically distressed areas. She promised to work with developers and talk about what the city’s critical needs are, but it wasn’t clear how that might bring investment to the east side.
Apart from incentives, Justus said the east side should “absolutely” get more city resources, adding that the city has to prioritize its problems and that violent crime tops that list.
“It’s happening because of disinvestment because of generations of segregation, of racism, of poverty, and the only way we’re going to solve those issues is by making sure we have a fair footing for everybody,” Justus said.
In response to a question about why some of Lucas’ affordable housing ordinances have yet to pass, Justus praised Lucas’ work to create an affordable housing trust fund, but noted “it’s not big enough and there’s no money in it yet.”
“And we don’t have a plan right now to fill it up with money,” Justus said.
She also criticized his proposal to use funds generated by the 1/8-cent sales tax for economic development, which aids projects on the east side, to fill it, saying the city shouldn’t be “raiding other resources.”
Lucas has been reluctant to endorse raising more revenue for housing priorities and favors using money from that sales tax and federal Community Development Block Grants the city already gets for various community priorities. On filling the trust fund, he said the city had to start somewhere.
Asked what she had done for the city’s east side, Justus touted citywide infrastructure upgrades and an anti-violence task force she chaired early in the term that recommended several policy initiatives to ease violent crime.
Lucas, who represents the area, capitalized on his advantage, saying the question was specific to the east side, not general. Attempting to draw a distinction, he said he had pushed for housing along the Prospect Avenue corridor and infrastructure improvements. He said he had pushed for more police patrols in the Santa Fe neighborhood, where residents complain of rampant prostitution.
“If you want to talk general, then the general things that I’ve done — every one of my policies, every policy I have every pushed has been about making the quality of life better for people from the east side because that’s where I’m from, too,” Lucas said.
Lucas and Justus said they would not prioritize moving the Kansas City Royals from the Truman Sports Complex in Lucas’ district to a new downtown baseball park in Justus’ district.
Justus said the city’s basic services need to be top priority, not downtown baseball. But she said she would be willing to have the conversations.
“It can, number one, not be on the back of taxpayers ever, and number two, we need to make sure we are not bulldozing communities to make it happen,” she said.
Lucas was similarly unimpressed by the idea.
“We need a new downtown baseball stadium like I need a new Maserati,” he said.
Lucas and Justus emerged from an 11-candidate nonpartisan primary last month and will face each other in a general election June 18. It’s the first time in 20 years that two sitting members of the City Council have faced off in a general election for mayor.