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Why The Retiring City Manager Says Kansas City Is Better Off Than 10 Years Ago

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Troy Sculte has served Kansas City as city manager for a decade, but he plans to retire in February.

Troy Schulte, one of the most influential city managers in recent Kansas City history, knows he may be remembered for helping oversee downtown’s revival, the streetcar, the convention hotel and a new airport terminal.

But as he prepares to leave City Hall early next year, he lists different accomplishments from his 10 years at the helm: instilling pride in city government, putting the city on a stronger financial footing, improving basic city services and advocating for an $800 million infrastructure overhaul.

“There’s a lot of focus on some of those big, glitzier projects, but I really like where Kansas City is at from the fundamental standpoint,” Schulte said, in a wide-ranging interview with KCUR’s Up to Date.

Still, Schulte acknowledged Kansas City continues to face intractable challenges, including a high debt load, big pension obligations, and a violent crime crisis. On that latter issue, Schulte said the city and Jackson County must address the issue of a crowded and outdated jail.

“We need to find a place to deal with our bad guys,” he said, adding that too many criminals arrested for aggravated assaults serve minimal jail time.

Schulte, 49, announced in September that he would retire from public service when his contract expires Feb. 29. He has been in Kansas City government for 21 years and served in the budget office before he was named acting city manager in 2009.

He was city manager under former Mayors Mark Funkhouser and Sly James. He told KCUR that he thought he could have been retained in that role by new Mayor Quinton Lucas and a new city council, but it was the right time to go.

“It was the perfect time for me to exit,” Schulte said. “This was the perfect time for someone else to come in, make sure they are fully aligned with what the mayor and city council want to achieve, and rebuild the organization in their vision.”

Government pride

Schulte’s predecessor, Wayne Cauthen, had a toxic, tension-filled relationship with Funkhouser, so Schulte took over city government leadership at a time of low employee morale. The Great Recession also took a big toll, leaving almost no money in the city’s rainy day reserve fund.

Since then, Schulte told KCUR, city government has come a long way in its professionalism, its standing in the community and in its financial footing.

“Hopefully we’ve become an employer of choice, not an employer of last resort,” he said.

Since he took over, Schulte said, the city has boosted its rainy day fund to $110 million. It has whittled its tax-supported debt load from $1.6 billion to $1.5 billion, with further debt reductions planned.

He also said the city has one of the country’s best performance management programs, using 311 call center data analysis to improve the delivery of city services.

Violent crime

Violence in Kansas City has been a chronic problem throughout Schulte’s tenure, although it’s mostly the responsibility of the police department, which is a state agency and doesn’t report directly to Schulte.

Schulte attributed the relentless crisis to several factors, including concentrated poverty in the urban core, huge unmet mental health needs, and public safety enforcement challenges.

Lack of progress against the violence is “not for lack of effort,” Schulte said.

“I think every program that is out there is being tried by our police department,” he said. Schulte said the department has added about 50 police officers in the past three years and needs to add more, making sure they are deployed strategically. He said more social workers could also help.

But Schulte said it’s also imperative that Jackson County deal with its “obsolete” jail or the city may have to at least create its own space for its detainees and criminals charged with lesser offenses.

As for his own future, Schulte said he plans to stay in Kansas City, although he could also devote more time to his family’s farm in Iowa.

After 25 years in the public sector, including a decade as one of Kansas City’s most powerful leaders, Schulte is looking for new challenges in the private sector.

“I’m looking forward,” he said, “to seeing what’s out there.”

Troy Schulte, city manager of Kansas City, spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up To Date.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley