KC mayoral candidates Justus and Lucas talk crime, incentives and grades for Sly James

The two candidates for Kansas City mayor took 90 minutes of questions from journalists and Northland community representatives Saturday, awarding high grades to incumbent Sly James, agreeing that police needed a new approaches to violent crime and deflecting an inquiry about firefighter overtime.

The forum, which drew about 200 people to Northland Cathedral, was the fifth in a series of six sponsored by The Kansas City Star. This is some of what Council members Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas had to say:

Violent crime. Both endorse the same basic changes. Justus, 4th District, called for a serious look at “precision policing,” a methodology adopted by Tampa and other cities that divides police departments into smaller patrol areas to focus more closely on crime trends and individuals with histories of violence.

Lucas, 3rd District at-large, supported a renewed emphasis on beat cops who know specific communities. He said he would support them with an expanded network of social workers who could help resolve underlying issues that drive domestic violence and other chronic problems. Lucas said the department must do more to encourage and protect witnesses to crimes.

Improving city services without raising taxes. Justus said the city has already taken a big step by approving plans to take trash pick up in the Northland and South Kansas City in-house by May 2020. She said she would also improve accountability for basic services by creating a new post of deputy mayor for neighborhoods.

Lucas said that as mayor “the buck should stop with me,” not a deputy mayor. He added that Northland residents should not have had to complain for 18 months to two years about trash collection problems before something was done.

A new city jail. Jackson County’s decision not to renew the city’s lease for 275 beds has led to discussions at City Hall about a new jail. Meanwhile the county is planning a new one of its own. Lucas called the situation “incredible inefficiency,” with estimates for a new city facility running from $25 million to $40 million.

He said what’s needed is a new combined regional correctional center. “I’m not sure this is the sort of thing we want to finance just for the city,” he said.

Justus said she wasn’t certain where a new jail would be built or what it would cost. But she praised one element of the city’s temporary plan, which is to rent 110 beds at the Heartland Center for Behavioral Change, where there is an emphasis on substance abuse treatment. She said any long-term solution must involve more support to inmates with mental health services and education as they prepare to re-enter society.

Ballot Question One. Both candidates are opposed to the ballot question, which proposes to cap property tax abatements for developers at 50 percent. Asked how they would deal with possible lost jobs and growth if it passed, Justus said that the cap would still be subject to analysis to see that it complied with state and local laws. She said she “would be open” to legal challenges if there were such a path.

Lucas said property tax abatements are only one tool available for spurring growth. He raised the possibility of abating other kinds of taxes and pursuing measures such as expedited city permitting to help businesses.

Fire Department overtime. The city has paid out $66 million in last five years. Neither candidate had much to say about the issue, a politically thorny one because it involves unionized and politically active firefighters. Justus, who sits on the council’s finance and governance committee, said the panel has “taken a deep dive” into the subject and that progress has been “incremental without question.”

“The conversation has to continue,” she said, adding: “I’m not going to be swayed by the politics.”

Lucas, who received the union’s endorsement, said the public’s safety was his first concern and that a comprehensive staffing study was needed to determine the city’s needs.

Grades for Mayor Sly James’ eight years in office. Lucas awarded a “B,” crediting James for helping pass the $800 million general obligation bond package. He lowered James’ grade for lack of transparency and communication in the KCI terminal project, and the failed campaign for a sales tax hike to expand access to pre-K. He said James erred by attempting to pass the plan over the objections of the city’s school superintendents.

“What I will not do is increase your taxes, just because I have an idea, no matter how meritorious it is,” he said.

Justus, who was endorsed by James, gave him an “A-.” She didn’t mention his predecessor Mark Funkhouser by name, but said James deserves credit for revitalizing the civic culture when it was at a low ebb. “We needed that type of leadership at the time he came in,” she said. “He brought in that bold leadership to jump-start the city.”

Justus did allow that she would be more collaborative than the sometimes headstrong James.

“I’m a different person,” she said. “I would have done some things differently. When I see a good idea I bring people to the table.”

Grades for City Manager Troy Schulte. Justus initially said “B+” then bumped him up to an “A-,” saying he’d done a remarkable job managing a large city with hard problems. She said he needed to help address what she called “those last pieces,” of upgrading neighborhoods and making it easier to do business in the city.

Lucas also gave an A-, but said Schulte needed to address at least three underperforming departments: Public Works, which needs a better plan for dealing with winter street conditions; Water Services, where rates have increased unacceptably, and Neighborhood and Housing Services, which needs to revamp its code enforcement approach for residents rehabbing homes.

The final Star-sponsored debate will be 2 pm Sunday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.

Related stories from Kansas City Star