Yael T. Abouhalkah

How to wisely use KC’s taxes: We’ve heard this before

Kansas City Mayor Sly James
Kansas City Mayor Sly James

The best and brightest minds of Kansas City government huddled for several hours of discussions and budget games earlier this week.

I’ve been to many similar gatherings under five different mayors and top city staff officials over the last 26 years. Two observations:

First, this group of elected officials works well together. It’s a testament to the leadership and direction from a tough-minded Mayor Sly James, but also to the experience of some veteran and capable City Council members.

James on Monday correctly talked about the need to keep Police Department spending, in particular, in check. Council member Ed Ford said it was crucial to attract private investment to the urban core. Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo noted the city was making better use of technology to serve residents, such as having GPS in trucks to keep track of snow-plowing progress. Council member Dick Davis rightly warned about the need to control pension costs.

But here’s a second, let’s-not-get-carried-away point: Kansas Citians have heard most of this before. History shows politicians, city managers and staff members routinely talk a good game about setting priorities and wisely using public funds.

• In 1991, Mayor Emanuel Cleaver held discussions during his first term about getting the city budget in better shape during tight fiscal times. City Council Finance Committee chair Dan Cofran noted, “The goal is not keeping people on the city payroll. The goal is providing good public services.”

Hmm, that should sound familiar to Mayor James, circa 2013.

• In 1999, Mayor Kay Barnes worked during her first year in office to sharpen the priority list for city spending. City Manager Bob Collins and his staff developed a way to rank city services based on how long they had been provided, whether they were required by the city charter and how many people benefited from them. The top priorities were firefighting, police patrols, animal control and park maintenance.

This week, City Council members went through yet another priority-setting game, this time with Ashley Z. Hand, the mayor’s chief innovation officer. Hint: Public safety scored high, again.

• In 2008, Mayor Mark Funkhouser presided over the unveiling of a lengthy, five-year financial plan from a national consultant, the PFM Group. “You can raise revenues or cut services, but you can’t print money,” Funkhouser said that day.

That’s true, of course, but whatever happened to PFM’s hefty 2008 report, which cost taxpayers around $150,000?

The council never adopted it and hasn’t adopted many of its proposals, either. That’s because Funkhouser served just one contentious term, James has no skin in the game of carrying it out, and the plan offered so many options there was no truly clear-cut path to follow.

One big lesson from all these previous discussions and reports is that elected officials and city government leaders must have the long-term commitment to stick to their top priorities to achieve lasting and positive changes.

At the end of Monday’s exercises, James and City Manager Troy Schulte said in interviews that residents should be encouraged by recent progress at City Hall.

The mayor pointed to the potential savings from pension reform, which has taken far too long to deal with but should be finished later this summer. The city in 2012 also finally made long-needed cuts to excessive Fire Department personnel. And James praised the voter-approved sales tax from last year, which is paying for improved park and street maintenance.

Both James and Schulte said one of the city’s biggest challenges is to better use technology so it can be more efficient.

“We’re finding ways to get more stuff done without adding people,” James said.

Now that’s something all taxpayers can support, now and forever more.