Unlike Mayor Sly James, Jennifer Wolfsie isn’t a powerful elected official.
She’s not a well-known philanthropist like Shirley Helzberg or a smooth-talking development lawyer like Jerry Riffel.
But bless Wolfsie — a Kansas City Public Schools parent — for what she and a few others are doing right now, basically in defiance of the views of James, Helzberg, Riffel and other movers and shakers in Kansas City.
By gathering signatures on a referendum petition, Wolfsie and a group have created a furor over the taxpayer-subsidized plan to put the BNIM architectural firm in a renovated building in the Crossroads Arts District.
Wolfsie and others raise an excellent point: When will politicians stop diverting so much money from schools and other taxing entities to help pay for projects in already-reviving parts of the city?
James and the City Council in late October approved $5.2 million in tax increment financing so Helzberg’s development team (represented by Riffel) could proceed with the project at 1640 Baltimore Ave. But the ordinance is on hold now that the referendum is underway.
Petitioners by early December must collect 3,400 signatures to place their wishes on the April 2016 ballot: Let Kansas Citians vote on whether to endorse the incentives.
The BNIM project positively retains a longtime employer. I wish it had not become the tipping point for such a crucial debate; City Hall has passed far more questionable TIF plans.
However, sufficient reasons do not exist in the BNIM case to divert more than $5 million in tax revenues from Kansas City Public Schools, the Kansas City Public Library, Jackson County, the city and taxing jurisdictions such as those for the mentally ill and the blind.
This project is happening in an area that James and others constantly boast is thriving — even spawning projects that don’t ask for tax subsidies.
While we await and hope for behind-the-scenes machinations to reach a more satisfactory deal, here’s a look at a few players in this entertaining saga.
▪ James removed Philip Glynn from the TIF Commission after he voted last week against proceeding with a development agreement for the BNIM project. James said Glynn was taking a “policy” stand that opposed what the council had done in backing the incentives. However, the panel only makes recommendations. James’ action raised the concern that, in the future, the city’s TIF commissioners more than ever will be mere puppets.
▪ Gayle Holliday and Clinton Adams Jr. were two early signers of the referendum. Both are active officials with Freedom Inc., the black political club that has recently battled with James.
▪ R. Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library, often openly opposes city deals that take money out of the library’s pocket. But not for the BNIM project. (There’s a Helzberg Auditorium at the Central Public Library.)
▪ Jamekia Kendrix — a parent, unsuccessful 2015 City Council candidate and backer of the referendum — commented on Twitter on Oct. 22: “Developers and their lawyers paying for votes. Stop them.” An attached document showed September campaign contributions of $1,350 to new council member Katheryn Shields from Riffel and from his law firm, and of $250 from Helzberg. When the council approved the subsidies a week later, Shields said, “This is an incredible project.”
I agree with Shields — except for the amount of taxpayer help.
The schools and other taxing entities deserve more money. Helzberg’s development team should get less.
James told me Tuesday, “I haven’t been talking to anybody about it in the last few days.”
But his involvement could lead to a better deal for all sides. He also doesn’t want this controversial item on the April ballot along with renewal of the essential city earnings tax.
More entertainment is ahead.