The Kansas City Star
By Allison Kite
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas cruised to victory on a platform of public safety, affordable housing and equity, he had served a term on the City Council. So he thought he had an idea of what he was getting into when he took office in August.
I think it’s been even double what I would have ever expected,” Lucas said in a year-end interview with The Star.
In his first five months, Lucas has seen triumph and trial from the 29th floor of City Hall.
Arguably his most historic success is in ordinances to limit access to firearms for minors and domestic abusers — laws other cities have copied and state lawmakers may debate this session. But 2019 also brought near-record homicides — 151 — and more than 480 nonfatal shootings.
He championed and helped guide the city’s first-ever Tenants Bill of Rights, but there is far more work to do on affordable housing.
Lucas and City Council members have questioned major development tax incentives, drawing in more tax money for the city, but he drew criticism for backing a $35 million package for Waddell & Reed, a financial services firm moving to downtown from Overland Park.
Councilwoman Andrea Bough, 6th District at-large, said that early in the term, the mayor’s office didn’t always involve council members enough, especially at the outset of a policy discussion, but that communication has since improved. Other council members said they would have liked to see more opportunities for the group to jell before jumping into legislating.
“I think we struggled early on to kind of find a rhythm as a council, but we’re starting to fall into that,” Bough said.
This year, he’ll continue work on the “intractable” problems he has set out to solve. He said Kansas City can expect efforts on housing and improvements to basic services. And when council members take up the budget in February, they expect to eliminate fares on city buses. This year will also bring a new city manager.
But at the top of Lucas’ list — his New Year’s resolution — is curbing violent crime.
“My 2020 resolution is to make Kansas City safer,” Lucas said in an interview with The Star, adding that he’d measure that by both the number of homicides and non-fatal shootings. “I’d like to see a significant reduction there, and that’s the work we need to do.”
Violent Crime and Public Safety
Violence was high on the list of issues at Lucas’ inauguration.
“I ask my colleagues to stand with me as we commit by the end of this term to getting our city off the FBI top 10 most dangerous cities list,” he said then.
Lucas’ administration started quickly on policies to reduce gun violence. Within four months, he and council members banded together to pass ordinances designed to keep minors and domestic abusers from getting firearms.
While it’s too early to assess the success of those policies, which are intended to give police officers more power to confiscate weapons, Lucas said he’s proud that the council took up the issue.
What I’m proud of more than anything that myself and this group of council people came in saying, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this consistent level of violence long term. Whatever it is we need to do, we’re going to work like hell to make sure we’re addressing the issue and not just saying let’s bury our heads in the sand of X or Y other issues and act like it’s not a tragedy whenever we have a homicide in our city.'”
Importantly, those ordinances have gotten the attention of other Missouri mayors and Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican.
“(Lucas) has been very open to pushing the boundaries on that, and then to have the governor say, ‘Yeah, we need to get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers,’ is like, ‘Woah, that’s new,” said Councilman Eric Bunch, 4th District.
“I have not seen a mayor in a city in Missouri really take a stand like that, and I think that’s pretty exciting, and I think that it’s something that the state of Missouri really needs.”
After a closed-door meeting with Lucas and other mayors last year, Parson announced his interest in “common sense” gun legislation to keep minors, domestic abusers and violent criminals from carrying weapons. Parson said in November that he would make the case to the Missouri General Assembly, which begins its 2020 legislative session next week.
“Whether that’s something that we’re seeing hundreds of arrests on or far fewer, I think this is a good tool in the arsenal for our police,” Lucas said. “I think it is a good tool in the arsenal for domestic violence advocates, and I think it lets people know that they can be safe in our community.”
Lucas said he was also proud of the work his office has done on ensuring Kansas City has a place for its inmates.
A short-term contract between the city and the Heartland Center for Behavioral Change proved unsuccessful after inmates escaped or died and the facility lost its insurance.
Lucas’ office reached an agreement to return Kansas City’s inmates to the Jackson County Regional Correctional Center, where they were housed before the county stopped taking city inmates.
I think one of the biggest focuses of ours has been to make sure that we’re addressing long-term problems that folks thought somewhat intractable,” Lucas said.
‘Not Going to Give up on Any Part of Kansas City’
In interviews and public appearances on the path to his striking 17-point victory over opponent Jolie Justus last June, Lucas championed the issue of affordable housing, often drawing on his own experience as a homeless child.
Since his inauguration, his office and the City Council have emphasized the issue, passing Kansas City’s first-ever Tenants Bill of Rights.
The package, which Lucas signed last month, cements a host of tenant rights in municipal law and creates new protections for those with prior convictions and evictions and recipients of housing vouchers. It’s not everything requested by KC Tenants, which negotiated the proposal with Lucas’ office, but it moved the needle.
“I’m proud of the fact that when you look at the quality issue, we have somebody that these folks can call,” Lucas said. “We have an outlet.”
But in the months since Lucas took office, some other affordable housing proposals he introduced during his tenure as a councilman haven’t moved far.
Last year, along with city staff, Lucas developed and passed a housing policy and several proposals intended to spur more affordable housing development. Council members passed ordinances that relaxed parking requirements for developers building affordable homes, spurred a study of “inclusionary zoning” in Kansas City and granted fair housing protections to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and battery and stalking.
Two major tasks aren’t done yet. Lucas’ proposed five-year $75 million Housing Trust Fund isn’t fully funded, and a plan to require developers seeking tax incentives to set aside some of their units for low-income residents is still stalled at committee.
When Lucas began promoting the Housing Trust Fund early last year, he said the city couldn’t rely as heavily as it once did on federal grants. It needs a local source of funds. But during the campaign, Lucas proposed better use of funds the city already gets from federal grants and a local tax known as the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax, which is governed by a mayor-appointed board that doesn’t exclusively focus on housing projects. Last fall, Lucas said the city could draw as much as $42 million from the federal and local sources for the trust fund.
The Neighborhoods & Housing Services Department at City Hall is also working to identify general fund dollars for housing, Lucas said. At this time, he doesn’t support any tax increase to help fund more affordable housing.
“We’ve gone to the trough a lot, and I think the taxpayers may be saying, ‘Well, let’s see how we’re handling everything that we’ve given you now.'”
To some, including Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, 3rd District, using federal grants and central city sales tax funds isn’t an acceptable solution. She noted some of the federal money is dedicated to other community resources.
“But there are a lot of agencies that already depend on those funding sources, so we would have to be clear as to who are we going to be cutting out of the equation and why,” Robinson said, “so I am not thrilled about utilizing existing funding sources to fund the housing trust.”
The city’s federal housing funds don’t all go toward new housing. Some go to youth programs, a domestic violence shelter, Harvesters and other community services.
Dianne Cleaver, who runs the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, said she thought looking at existing revenues was a good start.
“But I continue to say we’re going to have to get more revenue, not rob Peter to pay Paul,” Cleaver said.
In the last council term, Lucas noted, the city found $10 million to demolish dangerous homes. He said he hoped the city could turn its attention to preserving housing stock.
What I don’t want is what I saw on my most recent trip to Detroit: blocks and blocks without homes,” Lucas said, “so much vacancy that we have utilities that are cutting off swaths of land and basically they’re giving up on parts of the city. I’m not going to give up on any part of Kansas City.”
In his council term and on the campaign trail, Lucas was known as a frequent critic of generous incentives for major economic developments.
He championed and passed a limit on tax incentives in 2016 and opposed breaks for several major projects, including an ultra-luxury hotel proposed near the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
On the campaign trail, he referred to the incentives Kansas City has awarded downtown and in the Crossroads Arts District for years as “trickle-down economic development,” and said the policy was built on disrespect for public schools in the city.
On several projects in this term, he has held firm. He pushed for a trim to the city’s incentives for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is moving two federal research agencies and 500 employees to town.
He consistently opposed Strata, a $133 million speculative office tower that was granted major incentives. Faced with council members whose feelings about the project ranged from outright opposition to hesitation, developers went back to the drawing board and trimmed their ask.
Lucas still voted against it, though he did not veto the project.
But he elicited criticism from regular opponents of incentive deals, including Jan Parks, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Kansas City Economic Development Reform, for his support of a $44 million incentive package for Waddell & Reed, which the council eventually trimmed to $35 million. The financial services firm is also receiving $62 million in state incentives to move more than 900 jobs to downtown from Overland Park.
“We are disappointed based on comments he made during the campaign. We expected to see more reform by now,” said Parks, who added she hoped what she was seeing was a “work in progress, not a change in philosophy.”
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell said the final deal was close to what the district had been fighting for, but the process wasn’t what he hoped it would be. Lucas, he said, didn’t work with the school district at the outset and took a “political hit” for supporting it.
“We did feel like this was more of the same, and we’re not interested in more of the same,” Bedell said. But he said that on the whole, they’ve had a positive working relationship.
Lucas argued, however, that the council didn’t “rubber stamp” any of those deals. In all three cases, the city negotiated a smaller incentive package than developers initially sought.
For the first time in years, you’ve had a council that I think has supported significant and consistent reform on every economic development incentive,” Lucas said.
City Council in 2020
The first part of the new year holds a series of hurdles for Lucas and the City Council.
Pressure to build more affordable housing will continue to build. Depending on the weather, Kansas City may once again face a pothole and snow-plowing crisis. And Lucas will be expected to continue delivering on his campaign promise to improve the city’s basic services.
By mid-February, the council will have the next fiscal year budget dropped in its lap, which Lucas said he hopes will include more money for housing and transportation without cuts to general services, like snow plowing, street maintenance and trash service.
The city is without a permanent city manager after Troy Schulte’s December departure. Lucas named Earnest Rouse to man the post temporarily, but it may be months before the city chooses a permanent successor.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, 4th District at-large, introduced a resolution she said would undo Lucas’ nomination of a city manager search committee and give council members more power in the process. The full council is expected to debate that issue this week.
I think the important issue is the final, permanent city manager, and that’s the decision I want to make sure that the council as a whole has input into,” Shields said.
The council needs to pass the budget by late March, and while several council members said they’re settling into a rhythm now, this council has had numerous lengthy debates. Bough said members often have numerous questions before they’re ready to approve an ordinance.
“It’s been very interesting to see the lack of unanimity on the council, and it’s not necessarily that the council is not getting along,” Bough said. “I think it’s just that people want information, and if they don’t have the information that they need to vote yes, they’re not voting yes.”
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Learn more about initiatives during Lucas’ tenure as Kansas City mayor: