What’s the Proper Role of a City Government?

By Dennis Boone

Fix the business climate, and a lot of other problems will be addressed.

OK, so the usual handful of voters in Kansas City has designated a new mayor. Quinton Lucas will take office on Aug. 1, and the figurehead of city government will be in place until 2023.

On one level, it’s pretty cool that Mr. Lucas has reached the zenith of local politics at such a young age. I’m not sure we’ve had many 34-year-old mayors. And we’re big-time fans of his personal narrative: son of a single working mother who sacrificed greatly to secure his education at the exclusive Barstow School, setting the stage for college and law degrees from Washington University and Cornell Law School. He made the most of the sacrifices made on his behalf; he had the character to honor those gifts.

That he came back to his hometown when he could have made big bucks in the nation’s capital or other big cities back East speaks volumes about his commitment to this place. Now Mr. Lucas has the opportunity to clarify a few points about where he hopes to lead the council and the city in terms of business-friendliness at 12th and Oak. The sad fact is, on the day he was elected mayor, the naysaying nabobs who excel at holding this city back nearly handcuffed development here in their efforts to pass the Overland Park Full-Employment Act.

We can all be grateful that Question 1—the measure to implement unilateral caps on development incentives—failed at the ballot box, big-time. Still lingering, though, is the underlying sentiment that got the measure on the ballot in the first place; expect it to resurface again. A dog-in-the-manger embrace of huge reductions in development incentives—irrespective of their financial merits or geography, construction executives almost universally agree—will stomp on the brakes of redevelopment in the urban core. Those forces got a taste of power with the rejection of incentives for a new Crossroads headquarters building for design firm BNIM in 2016. They won’t soon forget it.

That kind of discord on the Missouri side is why Johnson County has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about its development prospects. Uncertainty on one side of the state line grants communities on the other a strategic advantage in terms of attractiveness to development. Let’s hope the folks in Lee’s Summit and Independence are taking note, and moving swiftly to position those communities to keep the growth going elsewhere in Jackson County, if not in KCMO proper.

With that as backdrop, Mr. Lucas has an opportunity to help redefine what it means to do business here. After eight years of an administration that made it a stated goal, there’s still plenty he can do to improve the city’s BFQ—business-friendliness quotient.

For starters, implementing a cultural shift at City Hall to focus first on quality-of-life issues. Public safety, sure—that’s always on the list for any big-city mayor—but a real, demonstrated commitment to filling potholes, repairing sidewalks, getting the damn steel plates off the streets, keeping up the parks, and clearing trash in public spaces. Oh, yeah: and doing something about the rates for water and sewer service.

It’s time for someone in leadership to get City Hall’s nose out of commercial affairs with its lame attempts to infuse more social-justice posturing into business life. Think about it. Over just the past term of this year’s mayoral candidates, they and their colleagues on the Kansas City Council have:

  • Attempted to phase in a $15 minimum wage within the city limits.
  • Ordered that questions about previous criminal history can no longer be part of an employer’s arsenal for evaluating prospective hires.
  • Declared that questions about previous salary history are off-limits to employers.
  • Authorized $75,000 to study the city’s own gender-equity pay issues. Ponder that for a second: An organization that doesn’t even have a grasp on its own challenges regarding the purported gender-pay gap wants to tell corporations doing business here how to manage their own payrolls.

Were I business owner, I might look at such demands and respond in one of three ways: “No.” “Hell, No.” And “Relocation Sale—Everything Must Go!”

It’s way past time for Kansas City’s leadership to focus on the engine that drives all else here, and get out of its way. Without a solid business foundation, we don’t have the kinds of employment that create a diverse and vibrant tax base (someone might want to ask Mayor Mike Boehm of Lenexa about this).

City Hall will never fix the Kansas City school district, and needs to stop trying. K-12 education is not its mandate. It might never fix the stormwater challenge, and needs to start trying harder. That is its mandate. Instilling an understanding of the difference between the two concepts will be a tall order for any mayor in this city.

It’d be nice to know, either four or eight years hence, that Quinton Lucas was indeed the man for that job.