Dave Helling

Mayor Quinton Lucas should pick a fight with Port KC and ask board members to resign

Mayor Quinton Lucas is on a collision course with Kansas City’s port authority, Port KC.

It’s a fight he needs to have. If Lucas really wants to get a handle on goodies handed out to developers and builders, as promised, he must corral Port KC, which can offer tax breaks, borrow money, condemn property, even set up special taxing districts without City Council approval or any truly independent oversight.

A few weeks ago, Google wanted up to $25 billion in tax-advantaged bonds for a data center. Who signed off on the deal? Port KC. Not City Hall.

Lucas, understandably, was miffed. But his frustration grew this week, when a board member claimed Port KC is really a “state agency,” answerable more to Jefferson City than City Hall.

The new mayor doesn’t see it that way. “I think if you’re appointed by the mayor, if you abate taxes in Kansas City, you’re a Kansas City agency,” he said, with some heat in his voice.

The spat involves more than boxes on an organizational chart. It’s about the ultimate control of a powerful agency largely unaccountable to the public.

Most residents here are surprised Kansas City even has a port authority. It was established in the late 1970s by state law and city resolution. The authority is supposed to promote business development that “could be reasonably connected to the business of a port.”

Locals will chuckle at that phrase. Except for gambling casinos, important industries along the Missouri River disappeared years ago. We don’t have a “port,” at least as most of us would understand the word.

That hasn’t stopped Port KC, which has assembled millions in incentives for projects at the former Richards-Gebaur airbase, downtown, even the old Board of Trade building on the Plaza. None are near the river.

Port KC, it turns out, can exercise its power anywhere in the city. Anywhere. It may be putting together incentives for the relocation of two USDA research agencies to Kansas City, an absurd, unnecessary subsidy.

Port KC’s murky omnipotence stems from Missouri law, which authorizes port authorities “as a political subdivision of this state.” As a legal matter, Port KC is indistinguishable from the city, the county, a school district or other public entities.

Except, of course, that Port KC board members need not answer to voters.

That isolation has led to mischief. The former chairman of the port authority went to prison for bribery. A former legal adviser found himself in hot water after setting up a dirt-moving company to win a contract on a port authority-sponsored project.

But the real concern today comes from Port KC’s muscle-flexing on incentives. There’s a real possibility an unelected board could become the go-to answer for developers seeking tax breaks that Lucas opposes.

The mayor appoints Port KC’s board. In 2011, Sly James appointed six new members to a nine-member board, effectively seizing control a few weeks after taking office. Asked this week if he would do the same thing, Lucas demurred.

The mayor should ask every current Port KC board member to resign. Then he can appoint new members more sympathetic to the voters’ concern about overuse of incentives.

Port KC director Jon Stephens clearly wants to pour oil on troubled waters at City Hall. In an email, he said he’s talked with Lucas, and “we are both committed to collaboration, partnership and creative solutions to our most entrenched problems.”

Perhaps. But Quinton Lucas was elected mayor almost two months ago, and he must demonstrate his commitment to making economic incentives rare and transparent. The mayor must make sure Port KC has heard that message and acts accordingly.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.