Thursday, March 1, 2012

What I Would Have Said If I Had Been There

Sports won out over civics.

Last night I had a conflict: Watch the Grandview High School Bulldogs as they started their quest for a state championship in basketball or go to a public hearing at the Hillcrest Community Center about the budget process put on by the Finance and Audit Committee of the City Council. Well, I hate to say it, but hoops won out (and congratulations to Grandview for its blowout victory over Lincoln Prep) I still have been thinking about the budget though and I thought it would be interesting to write down what I might have told the committee last night had I not yielded to my sporting instincts.

Honestly, I am not sure how much good these budget hearings do: they have not been very well promoted. I hope that you, the committee, have learned something about how the citizens feel about the city's budget and how the city handles money.

The budget reflects a tension that is visible in all economic planning and thought in these difficult days. Even the most casual study of economists reveals the rift between those who insist on austerity in order to reduce debt accompanied by a reduction in the size and scope of government to help the economy and those who believe that spending on projects funded by the government is a way to propel the economy forward. That rift is reflected in the Kansas City budget. On the one hand, you have a large plan that will cost a billion dollars that concerns itself with infrastructure and on the other hand, you have a budget that is austere to basic services such as police, fire and public services to the point that it may affect the quality of life in the city.

What emerges is a picture of a city that seems willing to spend money on new mass transit pieces, and the promotion of development but is busy telling the police chief, the fire chief and the head of public works to cut, cut, cut their budgets. Furthermore, citizens feel that neighborhoods that are still very viable and lively are left hanging, while the neighborhoods that are in very bad shape are having a lot of money poured into them. In addition, the attempts to revive the downtown area are continuing to require subsidies, and the citizens resent any plan that puts any more money towards projects in the downtown area.

I am as big a fan of mass transit as anyone. I grew up in Manhattan, New York City, where transit truly is practical (although it is still not completely self supporting); we have to face facts: Kansas City mass transit will not ever be practical unless this city contracts substantially and becomes much more dense. If gas ever reaches $10 a gallon, you might see that, but it would be more likely that the city would become dense in naturally occurring centers that already exist, such as commercial centers or schools. It may be that, other then small locally centered efforts, even in the face of European style gas prices, Kansas City may never look like it did in the 1950s. What you would see is neighborhood villages rather then a predominant downtown city center. It may be time for the city leaders to give up on the idea of one city center. In the end, Kansas City may become a city of hubs, with one larger one and many small ones.

I think the closer a government unit gets to the people, the more it needs to concentrate on the issues close to the people. That means catching criminals, preventing crime, putting out fires, providing help to the sick and injured, mowing the park, plowing the streets, patching the potholes, picking up the trash and all the other many details of running a city. Trying out interesting theories of Keynesian economics may be best left to larger and broader government entities. The quality of life in the city is directly related to the quality of the services rendered by City Hall. Poor service will kill a city. Police that do not respond to calls in a timely manner, that appear uncaring because they are overworked, lack of resources to solve crime and a dirth of resources applied to prevent crime by working proactively will result in a perception of a lack of safety in the city--this is just one example of what could happen if basic services are cut to the point of neglect.

The only place where there needs to be a substantial investment in infrastructure is in the water and sewer area. This area is seriously problematic to me, in that it appears in so many ways that the water department is not a competent department, having had a lot of turnover in leadership over the years. Frankly, before any more rate increases are done, and certainly before any other sources of money are given to the water department, the department MUST stabilize its leadership and obtain real expertise in its field. The water department in so many ways has the feel of a department in which patronage has taken precedence over competence. This is not acceptable in light of the task that is before the water department.

In short, it is time to concentrate on basic services. If we are asking ourselves what it is that we can and cannot do, then it is time to bear down on doing the things that make it nice to live in the city. If there is a perception that one is not safe in one's home, that the place is messy and not in good repair--it just looks bad--it matters little what development is provoked by tax breaks and subsidies to private and other entities. No one will stay in a unsafe and unkempt city. That is a fact. Thank you for your time and attention.


Hyperblogal said...

I've been back in the city for 22 years now and every election cycle we're promised a "back to basics" brand of governance. And it never happens. At some point though financial realities will force the issue.. a downgrade of the city's rating to AA negative may be just the kick in the pants that is needed.

The Observer said...

You've been back about the same amount of time I have lived in the metro...and it is a familiar pattern, it is. I think sometimes it is related to Kansas City's inferiority complex and other times it is related to a nostalgia for the way it was. We would be better off trying to have a well run little city then crazily running after every crazy development plan that comes along.

Super Dave said...

Well I have been here longer than both you have and it has been a down hill run to failure for a long time.

chuck said...

Gotta tell ya, that pithy, concise and well said piece might be your best.

Ya oughtta send it to the Mayor and City Council seriously.

It wouldn't change anything , but I would feel better.

I remember working in the water department about 5 years ago, doing some low voltage work.

I was there about 3 days off and on.

The entire building is mostly populated with "strong black women" stereotypes and what seemed to me as a surfeit of uneeded labor, coupled with meaningless conversation concerning myriad subjects, none of which were fluvian in nature.

I didn't know for sure what every one was supposed to be doing, but it sure looked like make work to me.

Like I said, I could be wrong, but your work "Patronage" seems apt.

The problem is, where are these folks gonna work, and what are they going to do, if the Wate Dept doesn't provide jobs for them?

Bob G. said...

One need only to look to DETROIT to see what can go WRONG, and in so many ways.

I also enjoyed mass transit back in the day (in Philly as well as NYC).
But there is a long story that explains WHY it all but deserted us in the last few decades.
(another post for another day)

We just suffered a FORTY PERCENT water rate hike in Ft. Wayne.
(aged infrastructure, of course)

We wonder WHAT'S NEXT?
(then look at all the welfare queens and druggies around on the gov't dole and wonder no longer.)

I don't mind paying MY way in life, but paying for everyone else's way when they simply "don't want to"?
That stretches things a tad too far for me.

Excellent post.

Stay the course.
And saty safe out there.

The Observer said...

This was priceless:
"...meaningless conversation concerning myriad subjects, none of which were fluvian in nature."


Thanks, you made my day! :)

The Observer

The Observer said...

Detroit is the non-model isn't it--how to ruin a city.

Can we learn from Detroit?

The Observer