© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Frank White: Legislature’s Move To Take Control Of COMBAT Tax Is ‘Sowing Chaos’

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. to include comments from a spokewoman for Frank White and from Scott Burnett, the chairman of the Jackson County Legislature.

Jackson County Executive Frank White says an ordinance transferring control of the COMBAT anti-drug tax to the Jackson County prosecutor has sown chaos among county employees, and White has asked a judge to declare it illegal.

In court filings this week, White fired back at the county legislature, which two weeks ago sued to enforce the ordinance after White refused to cede control. The ordinance, passed by the legislature in December, transferred administrative authority over the tax and the COMBAT Commission from White to Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

On Jan. 19, Jackson County Circuit Judge George Wolf handed down a temporary order barring White and members of his administration from interfering with Baker’s oversight of the tax and the commission. The quarter-cent sales tax generates about $20 million a year for drug abuse and crime prevention efforts.

In his court filings, White argues the ordinance was an illegal usurpation of power by the legislature and asks Wolf to stay his order for 30 to 60 days until the matter can be addressed on the merits.

“The Legislature and the Prosecutor are actively using the Court’s Order to justify eliminating the pay of certain county employees, effectively attempting to fire them,” White asserts in court filings.

“These actions must stop until this Court can hear both sides and determine the validity of the ordinance in question, and the propriety of the ongoing actions of representatives of the county Legislature and the Prosecutor.”

White says the legislature and Baker are using an invalid ordinance and the court’s order to seize control of his staff and functions, “which is sowing chaos among county employees and placing them in a place of conflict they do not deserve.”

Actions taken by Baker, he says, include: 

  • Asserting control over the coordinator for Jackson County’s prescription drug monitoring program. While the program is funded by the COMBAT tax, it’s the product of its own separate ordinance, White says.
  • Instructing other county employees to take Baker’s directions. “This has left a general sense of confusion in the employees, and fear of criminal consequences,” White says.
  • Slating 10 employees in the finance department for elimination without prior authority or approval. Eight of them, White says, were purged from the payroll on Jan. 12 and had to be paid by manual check.
  • Defunding jobs assigned to the chief of health services, Jaime Masters.
  • Letting requests for proposals for COMBAT’s prevention, treatment and grant match services go unaddressed.

In a brief statement emailed to KCUR, Baker responded: “My office did not seek COMBAT. The Legislature came to me and asked if I would supervise it. Throughout this, we’ve attempted to follow the direction of the Legislature. I will also follow the direction of the judge.”
Marshanna Hester, a spokeswoman for White, said the filings "really speak for themselves. I think the county executive is just doing what he believes what's in the best interests of county associates and what's best to get a quick resolution for all parties involved." 

Scott Burnett, chairman of the legislature, said White's refusal to comply with the ordinance was the issue. 

"Our argument is that he has to follow the ordinances," Burnett said. "It's like if the City Council passes a law that puts a stop sign at 31st and Troost, you can't argue with that, you can't say, 'I'm not going to stop at the stop sign because I don't agree with it.'

"So what we were simply saying in our lawsuit that the judge ruled on in three days is that he has to follow an ordinance until it's proved unlawful."

White, a former All-Star second baseman for the Kansas City Royals, and the legislature have been at odds over a host of issues, including how to replace the Jackson County Detention Center, which is in a state of disrepair and has been plagued with sanitary and safety violations.

In October, the legislature passed an ordinance creating three jobs that essentially duplicated jobs performed by White’s staff. White vetoed the ordinance but the legislature overrode his veto. At the same time, legislators introduced a proposal to allow the prosecutor rather than White to appoint the COMBAT director, an arrangement that had existed until 2007.

The legislature passed the ordinance on Dec. 11. White promptly vetoed it, but once again the legislature overrode his veto.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.




Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.