For 30 years, a Jackson County tax has funded anti-crime efforts. Its success is hard to measure
Jackson County’s Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax, or COMBAT, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The first-of-its-kind program has been lauded for its contributions to crime reduction. But, with gun deaths climbing each year, it's challenging to measure whether the money makes a difference.
For Harrison Lockwood’s family, the money and mentorship the 12-year-old gets from working as a landscaper in the “Youth Life” job program is irreplaceable.
“They’re happy to find out that I've started to learn how to save and make money,” said Lockwood. “They're proud that I've learned life lessons and stuff.”
This is Lockwood’s first year with the program. He works with 19-year-old Kyle Bruce, who’s been on the job longer. Bruce says he appreciates the chance to pass down what he’s learned.
“Having somebody looking up to me, it actually helps me a lot. It makes me think about everything I do,” said Bruce.
“You get a lot of love here and it really does keep you occupied,” Bruce said. “It really keeps you out of trouble, and it brings you together with people that you might not ever seen before — people of different races, people of different ethnicities.”
Bruce and Lockwood are among about 30 youths employed by the nonprofit Sisters in Christ in Raytown. The organization got more than $550,000 this year from Jackson County’s Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax, known as COMBAT.
COMBAT money is raised by a 0.25% sales tax that was approved by county voters in 1989 in response to rampant crime during the crack cocaine epidemic. It’s the only program of its kind at a county level, and has been approved by voters three times since its inception. For the past decade, the fund has raised more than $20 million each year.
But what looks like success at organizations like Sisters in Christ, isn’t necessarily reflected in Kansas City’s homicide numbers. And COMBAT’s finances have come into question in the past.
Since 2013, the city has had only one year with fewer than 100 homicides — 2014 had 79, the lowest total since 1972, according to the Kansas City Star.
In the last three years, Kansas City’s homicide totals were all more than 150, with 2020 being the deadliest year on record, at 182.
According to the Kansas City Star’s homicide tracker, there have been 128 homicides as of Aug. 17, putting the metro on pace to break the homicide record yet again.
COMBAT Director Vincent Ortega admits it’s a serious issue — and bad optics for his program.
“We still have violent crime, we still have drug addiction, drug abuse,” said Ortega, a retired Kansas City police officer. “It's really hard to show the true impact (of) prevention and treatment programs.”
“Assessing some of these programs is very tough. But I always say: What if we didn't have these programs in there? How bad would it be now? We know, at least we have boots on the ground and some of these individuals working,” he said.
The situation came to a head in 2018, when the Jackson County Legislature shifted the program’s oversight and direction from the county executive’s office to the prosecutor’s.
COMBAT’s history of money mismanagement hit a breaking point in 2019.
Two forensic audits, one in 2019 by Kansas City auditing firm BKD and another in 2020 by the Missouri State Auditor's office, reported no criminal wrongdoing, but they did reveal millions of tax dollars had been spent with little or no oversight for decades, sometimes on things that had nothing to do with COMBAT.
“Funds were taken for other county operations, and that is not OK,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told KMBC 9 TV in September 2019. “That's not what those dollars were ever intended for.”
The 2020 audit handed down a rating of “fair,” the second-to-last option on the state's rating system.
It also noted that COMBAT wasn’t sufficiently conducting annual audits and evaluations for the more than 90 community organizations, programs, and law enforcement agencies it funds, as mandated by Jackson County law.
Continuing the mission
In response to the 2019 audit, COMBAT has created a website detailing the improvements they’ve made since.
Their response to a records request from KCUR for documents pertaining to problems cited in the 2020 audit — more than 60 inspection reports and other forms from 2022 — appear to confirm some oversight of the participating organizations is ongoing.
In an email to KCUR, COMBAT Deputy Director Dawna Shumate said they’ve hired program monitors to inspect nonprofits that get that money, and some expenses, like vehicle allowances, were eliminated under the prosecutor’s watch.
Steadfast, Ortega believes in the mission. And he knows the county's crime problem isn't one police can arrest their way out of.
“We can't just look at the youth if he's being traumatized at home. We have to work with the whole family, bringing wraparound services to them,” he said. “That's really how we're making a difference.”
It’s a different approach than COMBAT took in its earlier days, when the public safety tax was mostly used to give Jackson County law enforcement extra resources to deal with gang- and drug-related violence.
Ortega said the program’s more comprehensive model for preventing crime, first instituted around 2015, puts more focus on drug treatment, drug prevention and other social determinants of health. The initiative is called Striving Together To Prevent Violence in Neighborhoods, or STRIVIN'.
“Basically, it’s Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I mean, they don't have food, there's no electricity, they can't make rent,” he said. “So that's really what we’re talking about, those … systemic problems that have really not been addressed.”
After analyzing crime data from 11 Jackson County law enforcement agencies and identifying five high-crime areas where COMBAT could best focus, hubs were established in Raytown, Independence, Midtown, and south and northeast Kansas City.
'Pulling us together'
The hubs are the avenue through which money gets to groups like Sisters in Christ, the nonprofit that hired Lockwood and Bruce in Raytown.
It was founded by activist Carolyn Whitney in 2018 to support underserved people in Kansas City’s old suburb to the east. They also do workforce development and host substance abuse programs for at-risk women and girls that includes transitional housing.
“This STRIVIN' process is pulling us together,” Whitney said. “I work with the school district, I work with the police department, we work with other agencies like the Center for Conflict Resolution, MOCSA and ReDiscover.”
After seeing the area’s swift demographics change from mostly white to mostly African American and immigrants over the last decade, Whitney believes “the families that are coming in here now, their needs are going to be greater.”
Like Ortega, she thinks things in Raytown would be worse without groups like hers, and the tax money they put back into the community.
“People are more underserved. They don't have the same jobs or the same income. There is more single parenting and even men coming out of prison, coming into this community,” Whitney said. “Are we prepared for that, to give them the resources?”
“We can direct traffic and help people get on track when they come to this community,” she said.
Still, with homicides on pace to shatter the record set in 2020, measuring the effectiveness of COMBAT’s new approach won’t be getting any easier.