Kansas City, Kansas, Mayoral Candidates Clash Over Spending, Utility Costs And The T-Bones
As the race for the Unified Government's top job draws to a close, the two candidates for mayor/CEO are drawing distinctions between themselves and their proposed policies.
Mark Holland was elected mayor in 2013 and says his re-election would maintain the momentum that his administration has built in Wyandotte County, especially when it comes to job increases, low unemployment and growing household incomes.
David Alvey has served on the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities for the past eight years and is an administrator at Rockhurst High School. He says wasteful spending and lack of development on the county's east side during Holland's tenure can't continue.
Alvey and Holland covered a range of issues with Steve Kraske, host of KCUR's Up To Date, on Wednesday. Election Day is next Tuesday, Nov. 7.
The following interview highlights have been edited for clarity and brevity:
Is a change in leadership needed?
Alvey: "Mayor Holland launched some initiatives towards the BPU which simply showed a lack of respect for the rate-payers and there was a need, I think, to establish new leadership. We appreciate all the development that is happened in Wyandotte County — and again that goes way back, especially the work now of Greg Kindle at the Wyandotte Economic Development Council, to attract and retain businesses — but I think there has to be a reset in leadership.
"I believe, and when I listen to folks, there's people who feel neglected, neighborhoods who feel neglected, taxpayers feel neglected — left out — and many folks in fact feel alienated."
Holland: "Wyandotte County has great needs. We have tremendous challenges, but of the $5.5 billion in economic development the last 20 years, $2.8 billion of that has come during my four years. We've added 11,000 jobs that are paying 16 percent above the state average. The unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in 30 years. The median household income is growing at twice the rate of the state average in Wyandotte County. So we're making the right steps and doing the right things.
"Obviously, our taxes are still too high but we've got to continue to grow the economy — growing the valuation of our cities is the only way to bring down taxes. We have to address blight. Blight is damaging the valuation of our city, and everyone deserves to live in a neighborhood they're proud of. So the aggressive blight initiative we've rolled out is growing values and controlling cost."
Are you concerned about property tax rates?
Holland: "Well I think, you know, there are two two issues that people are upset about. One is our taxes are too high in Wyandotte County, and I've worked very hard over the last four years to bring that down. We actually have the lowest city-side tax rate in 50 years.
"Utility rates are too high, too, and when I talk to people both of those are concerns. My opponent has raised our electric rates 42 percent in his eight years and he's raised our water rates 35 percent. We can't afford that tax and spend model at the Unified Government."
"Well, I think the first and most important thing is stop unnecessary spending. You know Holland fails to mention that, since he's been on the Unified Government commission, the fees on the BPU bill that our rate-payers see, the storm water management fees have increased 125 percent, the water pollution abatement charges have increased 108 percent, the pilot, which is the Unified Government tax on the BP bill — which I receive constant complaints about the pilot — has increased 50 percent, and trash fees have gone up 58 percent. So this is not a tax and spend model.
"... I understand that there are necessary expenses. ... [W]e have to make sure that when we spend money it is for things that are vitally necessary. We have so many infrastructure needs in our county. We have to take care of those first and foremost."
How would you handle county spending on Community America Ballpark and the T-Bones baseball team?
Alvey: "You know we incentivize that development. That was necessary. You want to incentivize development, bring it into the county, get it started. However, you reach the point where you simply say, 'Well, you had your chance. We have to make sure that these projects now generate revenues for the city.'
"... [W]e, first of all, paid secretly the T-Bones' mortgage prior to buying the stadium from the T-Bones, and expending money for that. And now they're still not making it. We are now, the rate-payers, the taxpayers of Kansas City, Kansas, are paying utility bills for the T-Bones.
"... I would suggest that, first of all, we should have asked other organizations, 'Does anybody else want to bid on this stadium?' and enter into a contract, a management contract, with someone else who might have a different business plan.
"No other business, no other person in Wyandotte County has been given the deal that the T-Bones had — that is that they will pay half of their utility bills. That has never happened in the history of the BPU."
Holland: "So every minor-league team in America, including the independent leagues ... the cities own the stadiums. We did a comprehensive evaluation of all the teams, evaluated the contracts and said, 'What would it take to get a new team in here?' Let's offer our great partner, the T-Bones who have been here for 15 years, that same opportunity."
"For us it's ... a much bigger picture of protecting our tourist destination out west. We want to keep the team. We don't want a missing tooth in the smile of our city as visitors are coming. ... [T]he Royals and Chiefs got a $500 million subsidy from Jackson County. [That's] proportional to the value of a minor league baseball team to our city."
How big a deal is the county's deferred maintenance?
Alvey: "[T]hat is going to be the, really, most important priority of my administration is to take a good hard look at that $500 million in deferred maintenance to identify the specific places where we can do something with unloading these facilities, entering into different kinds of arrangements. But that problem has to be resolved because, if we don't do that, it will continue to function as a drain on what we can do to further develop our county."
Holland: "We all have deferred maintenance, right? I mean that's just the reality of municipal government. And what I've done is ... when we had the money coming back for the $12 million, the sales tax, [I] went out to the public and asked the public on a listening tour ... 'Here are the city services, here are the issues — including the deferred maintenance — streets, parks, buildings. Where do you want to invest those $12 million?' And got the feedback from the community, [which suggested] $2.4 million in property tax reduction and the rest in addressing maintenance issues, which is exactly what we're doing."
How can the county increase health outcomes?
"As I heard at a forum ... there's no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot. And everything you do right — moving in the right direction — starts to move the needle, because just solving socioeconomics isn't enough. But that's the key piece, which is why growing jobs in our community, why getting a thousand jobs at Amazon for our community, moving our bus line to make sure people have transportation to get to those jobs ... I mean, the win for our community is huge. It's all about economic development, it's about the [proposed downtown] YMCA, it's about a new grocery store, it's about hiking and walking paths, it's about addressing violence, it's about all the layers that have brought us down, and doing silver buckshot on each one, because everything we do right is going to move us forward."
Alvey: "The fact of the matter is that health outcomes are directly correlated to the poverty level of the family. So if we expect that building a YMCA downtown is going to significantly push that further along, I think we really want to see the results. I want to see the study that would demonstrate that opening the Y is going to have a significant impact on those health outcomes."
"I think, in terms of the YMCA, that's a good idea because we want to create a vibrant downtown and attract folks to use and come to downtown. I have a lot of friends and family who utilized the YMCA. I think that's a good thing. I think the real question is going to be whether it's sustainable. There is a reason why the YMCA chose not to re-open, or keep that one open, which required us to enter into this kind of initiative to try and sustain it. There is a reason why. It was financial. The question is going to be to what extent the Unified Government, the taxpayer, is going to have to subsidize that."
How do you spur more development in downtown KCK?
Alvey: "So I think the most important thing is, you work with the folks who are already there and are being successful. Even though they're being successful, they face numerous challenges. I think that the approach of the Unified Government ought to be that we reach out to them and we identify and help them articulate the problems they face, and to make sure that the Unified Government and all of its departments understands those problems and tries to solve those problems.
Holland: "Well, I want to say Central Avenue is booming, Steve, you got to come down Central Avenue. Minnesota Avenue; best Mexican food in the metro, you've got to come down, everyone should come down and try it out. Hey, Kansas City, Kansas, is booming. It's hitting on all cylinders. We have to take the success out west and continue to invest it in the urban areas. We're seeing that happen and we're just going to need to keep moving it forward. I couldn't be more proud of where Kansas City, Kansas, is and where we're headed."
Listen to Steve Kraske's entire conversation with David Alvey and Mayor Mark Holland here.