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Why Kansas City's police budget can be a mystery — even to the mayor

Kansas City Police work the May 30 (2020) protest on Mill Creek Road.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police work the May 30, 2020, protest on Mill Creek Road.

Voters throughout Missouri will see a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would specifically require Kansas City to give 25% of its annual revenue to the KCPD, an increase of 5%. But because Kansas City lacks local control over its police, the city's elected officials have little say about how that money is spent.

By state law, Kansas City is required to spend at least 20% of its total revenue on its police department. But, unlike nearly every other city in the country, Kansas City’s elected and appointed officials have very little say about how that money is spent.

The budget process for all Kansas City departments begins with an initial budget request that’s revised during a series of City Hall meetings. But the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners has the power to move money around after the City Council approves the budget.

The final police budget is so mysterious that even Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who serves on the Board of Police Commissioners, doesn’t exactly know where all of the money comes from or where it goes.

Soon, more money may be flowing into the police budget. Thanks to action in the Missouri legislature this year, voters throughout the state will see a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would require Kansas City to give 25% of its annual revenue to KCPD — a 5% increase. For the current year, the required amount would increase from $154 million to $193 million.

How exactly does the police budget process work? Who decides how the city’s money is spent for police services, as well as legal settlements stemming from brutality and other cases? And what is the purpose of a “Self-Retention General Subsidiary Fund,” which has grown exponentially in recent years and which even Kansas City’s mayor describes as a mystery?

The Beacon asked the city budget office, KCPD’s fiscal division and the mayor’s office to break down the process. While Lucas and city staff responded, a KCPD spokesman sent a link to the department’s budget website and did not make anyone available for interviews or further information.

An eight-month budget process

The budgeting process starts about eight months before the start of the fiscal year, which goes from May 1 to April 30. The city is currently embarking on work for the fiscal year May 1, 2023, through April 30, 2024.

The five-member Board of Police Commissioners, which consists of the mayor of Kansas City and four members appointed by the Missouri governor, submits an initial budget request in October. This request goes to the city manager, who convenes representatives from KCPD and the city’s finance department to discuss the requested budget.

From there, the city manager and the finance department balance the city budget, which usually requires revisions to the police budget request.

The revised budget must be approved by the police board before the second City Council meeting in February, which is when the council submits the budget to the mayor. For the next fiscal year, this will happen on Feb. 9, 2023.

At that point, the City Council is required to hold at least one public budget hearing before it votes to approve the spending plan. The council’s next budget vote will take place on March 23, 2023.

Finally, the appropriated funds are made available to each department, including KCPD, on May 1.

A man wearing a police uniform holds a microphone inside a large room. He is standing in front of a large commissioners' desk.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Newly sworn Interim Police Chief Joseph Mabin prepares to address the audience inside the Community Room at Kansas City Police Headquarters.

Police board can move funds around in KCPD budget

Though the approved budget outlines the total amount of money appropriated to the police department and provides guidelines for where money should be directed within the department, Lucas said KCPD is not strictly bound to the city-approved budget. With a single vote of the police board, the department can spend money in ways other than what the city intended, in line with Missouri statute.

“You know how the tie goes to the runner in baseball? The tie goes to the Board of Police Commissioners,” Lucas said in an interview with The Beacon. “So they have exclusive authority and total discretion over, at least right now, 20% of the (city’s) budget.”

He gave an example from last year’s budget: The city wanted $400,000 to be spent on officer recruitment, but the police board ultimately voted to pay for a spare engine for a KCPD helicopter.

“The city is required to fund the board with a percentage of its general revenues for any given year. Once that appropriation is done, the board can move monies between classifications at will,” Kansas City Budget Director Tammy Queen told The Beacon in an email.

The police department’s 2022–23 budget includes a total of $268,915,126, which is a 5% increase from the previous year. Of that amount, about $248 million comes from Kansas City.

The majority of the money — 71% of total appropriations — goes to the KCPD general fund, followed by the community policing and prevention fund, which receives 12% of total appropriations. The remaining 17% goes to other expenses, such as the police drug enforcement fund.

The $191 million general fund primarily pays for employee compensation and benefits — about 82% of it pays for salaries, pensions and health insurance.

KCPD does not spend all of its budget

Lucas tweeted in July that KCPD has left anywhere from $5.4 million to $13.5 million of its budget unspent every year since at least 2018, according to a recent audit of the police budget.

When asked if he knew where the money came from in the budget, Lucas said, “The short answer is no, I don’t. But, they’ve given me a few different ideas.”

He said he suspects that a significant amount of the unaccounted-for money goes toward legal settlements, such as brutality claims. KCPD maintains a “Self-Retention General Subsidiary Fund,” established in 1991, which in this year’s budget totaled $6.8 million.

According to KCPD’s budget documents, the department uses the self-retention fund if legal claims exceed what is already budgeted for that purpose in the police general fund.

Lucas said KCPD already has a separate $4.8 million line in its main budget to pay for lawsuits.

“Why is it that we have like $6.8 million somewhere and $4.8 (million) somewhere else, if they’re actually going to the same thing?” the mayor asked.

The subsidiary fund is augmented every year using money from the police department’s general fund, which is in addition to the $4.8 million Lucas mentioned that is already budgeted for legal claims.

Since 2015, KCPD has transferred at least $1 million every year to the “self-retention” fund, which grew from $66,558 in 2017 to $6,683,028 in 2021 — an increase of nearly 10,000%. In the 2020–2021 budget, the department transferred more than $3 million from its general fund to this subsidiary fund.

“It has become almost a cat-and-mouse game of where is the money? Like, where does it go?” Lucas said. “Why is it that they are saying that their budgets are being cut … and then at the same time, sitting on all this fund balance and saying, ‘Yeah, well, it’s still meant for something in the future. We couldn’t spend it this year.’”

The Beacon sent questions to a KCPD spokesperson about its yearly budget remainder and how it budgets for lawsuit claims. The spokesman did not provide answers prior to publication.

The 2022 election could increase the KCPD budget

This spring, the Missouri legislature approved a bill initiated by Republican Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Parkville. The bill, which Gov. Mike Parson signed into law, increases required spending for KCPD to 25% of Kansas City’s budget.

In order to avoid a legal challenge on the grounds that the budget increase amounts to an unfunded mandate imposed without voter approval, lawmakers put the measure on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot. This statewide constitutional amendment affects only Kansas City’s police department.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment argue that it will prevent the city from “defunding” its police department — something Lucas and other elected officials say they have no intention of doing. Opponents argue that the amendment would give the city even less power over its own budget.

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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