Yael T. Abouhalkah

Civic leaders’ bluster can look a little arrogant

Cerner CEO Neal Patterson criticized Kansas City officials last week — the same officials who have approved more than $1.7 billion in incentives for his company.
Cerner CEO Neal Patterson criticized Kansas City officials last week — the same officials who have approved more than $1.7 billion in incentives for his company. The Kansas City Star

Like many civic leaders, Cerner Corp. CEO Neal Patterson spends time griping about political leadership.

The outspoken Patterson last week complained that the needs of the American Royal — for which he’s a lifetime governor — weren’t getting enough attention from Kansas City officials. Patterson and the Royal want to demolish Kemper Arena and erect a smaller facility with the help of some private funds but also by latching onto lots of public money.

“We don’t feel like people want us here....,” he said at the Royal’s annual luncheon. “You’ve just got to find somebody that’s got a vision. You’ve got to get a dial tone.”

In response, a spokesman for Mayor Sly James accurately noted that James and other city officials had “met with the American Royal multiple times, and an entire council committee has devoted significant time to the issue. The mayor believes that reflects a sincere desire to be communicative, and he was surprised when he read Mr. Patterson’s remarks.”

While it can be encouraging to see powerful local business leaders speak out on important topics, their views sometimes are inaccurate, arrogant or not in the region’s best interests.

Sticking with Patterson for a moment, it’s actually positive news that City Hall is protecting taxpayers by getting better information before deciding whether to provide a huge chunk of public funds for the Royal’s project.

It’s also misleading for Patterson to talk about city officials not listening to someone like him. After all, he leads a company that could receive more than $1.7 billion in public incentives because the city — after months of negotiations — approved construction of Cerner’s massive office complex at the old Bannister Mall site. It could enrich the city’s future, but it will take a lot of “vision” for the public and private sectors to pull off.

In addition, Cerner got a multimillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy to build its office complex in Kansas City, Kan. And Sporting Park, home to the soccer team partly owned by Patterson, also was erected with a large amount of public money.

R. Crosby Kemper III, executive director of the Kansas City Public Library, deserves praise for criticizing local politicians’ too-liberal use of taxpayer incentives that drain funds from the library, school districts, cities, counties and other taxing jurisdictions.

However, the library system also benefits from public funds that have helped construct the library system’s facilities, including tax breaks that made it possible to build the Plaza branch in an office building. Kemper also goes off course when he speaks out against the city’s 1 percent earnings tax, which provides the bulk of revenue for basic city services.

Going back in time, former top Sprint executive William Esrey was credited with helping the company grow in the 1990s. And after voters on both sides of the state line passed a sales tax in 1996 to renovate Union Station, Esrey was chosen to lead an oversight board for the project.

Unfortunately, Esrey imperiously said he would refuse to hold the group’s meetings in public. That was the wrong tactic when public funds were involved, and a mediation effort reached that conclusion. Esrey then resigned in a huff.

Notably, this was happening as Sprint moved to construct its sprawling, taxpayer-subsidized Overland Park campus.

Another recent wayward involvement of corporate leaders came during their 2013 campaign to ram through a medical research sales tax in Jackson County.

In that case, civic officials easily persuaded Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders and most county legislators to endorse the proposal. Fortunately, voters overwhelmingly defeated a cause that didn’t deserve $800 million in public money.

As Neal Patterson and Royal boosters are finding, it can take time to reach the best decision for Kansas City’s future — especially when taxpayer money is at stake.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.