Crime, housing, baseball: Kansas City voters have important decisions ahead — and soon

Photo illustration

Sign-ups will begin Tuesday for the 2023 City Council elections in Kansas City, and for mayor. The April city primary is just four months away.

(Be thankful for small favors: The primary campaign was once conducted in February’s bitter cold, just a few weeks after the winter holidays.)

Next year’s choices are extraordinarily important. Because of term limits, six of the council’s 12 seats are open — incumbents in those districts are prohibited from running again in 2023. That means new voices and new approaches are possible when the new council takes office next August.

Mayor Quinton Lucas is eligible to run for a second term, and is of course expected to do so. So far, there does not appear to be a serious candidate to oppose him.

The city’s nonpartisan elections are one explanation for this. In Kansas City, political parties don’t automatically provide opposition candidates. And because the mayor is limited to two four-year terms, most candidates prefer to wait and run when the seat is open, rather than oppose a popular, well-funded mayor.

We endorsed Lucas in the 2019 general election, and have supported most of his agenda since. At the same time, we hope he faces a credible opponent (or opponents) next year. Kansas City can only benefit from visible campaigns focused on real issues and real solutions.

Make no mistake: The list of issues facing the next mayor and council is long.

Crime and policing

Kansas City’s murder rate remains unacceptably high. Within the next few days, the city will exceed its homicide total for all of 2021. By the end of the year the city could set a record for homicides.

The continuing slaughter is unacceptable. We fully understand the bizarre disconnect between council members and the police — the state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners leaves little room for voter-based solutions. But we should expect candidates to provide their views on reducing the violence any way possible.

We also invite discussion about police conduct. Why must local taxpayers continue to pay millions of dollars for brutality settlements? What might be done to address improper police behavior, and improve relations with the community?

Because of misguided legislators in Jefferson City and an appalling lack of a statewide campaign to oppose an overreaching amendment in the November election, Kansas Citians must provide millions more to the police department in 2023. Council candidates must explain how they can influence that spending, and how all Kansas Citians can be protected.

Housing and homelessness

Kansas City has taken important steps toward addressing housing issues, including approval of borrowing $50 million for the housing trust fund. How will that money be spent? New council members will play a significant role in those decisions.

More protections for renters should be on the table. Homelessness has not gone away; more than 2,000 people are homeless in the city on any given night. The city’s comprehensive housing policy must evolve to meet changing needs, and candidates should be clear about their views on those changes.

Economic development, downtown baseball

The current City Council attempted to rein in excessive developer subsidies, with mixed success. If the economy slumps, as many expect, the pressure to hand out tax breaks to developers will intensify.

Voters should get clear answers from candidates on the wisdom of developer subsidies and tax breaks. Should they be targeted to underserved areas, such as the East Side and the West Side?

It’s also clear the next council will be involved, in one way or another, with the generational argument over a downtown baseball stadium, and whether local taxpayers should foot the bill for part of the cost. Candidates should be crystal clear on what they would or would not support.

Mayor Lucas has wavered dramatically on this issue. Voters should ask him to clearly state his views on taxpayer-supported sports arenas.

Transportation

The streetcar extension remains under construction, but there is already discussion of another extension to the East Side of Kansas City. Candidates should address the lack of fixed-rail transit to poorer neighborhoods, while abandoning silly talk of building light rail to the stadiums, which may not be open a decade from now.

We continue to support no-fee bus transit in Kansas City. We think candidates should talk about that, too.

North versus south

The tensions between Kansas City north of the river and Kansas City south of it are real. The divided public vote over police funding is clear evidence of that.

Can candidates and campaigns discuss ways to unite the city, not divide it? This is especially critical because three of the four councilmembers representing the Northland can’t run again. Northland representation will turn over, giving the entire city an opportunity to open a dialogue about citywide progress.

There are other concerns. The new council must keep a close eye on spending from the recently-passed $175 million bond package, as well as the $800 million in spending approved several years ago. And, of course, taxation is always a concern: Kansas City’s tax structure hurts the poor. Reform is possible.

We urge all Kansans Citians to pay close attention in the weeks ahead to the mayoral and council races. Because of the weird way the city conducts local elections, voters will have eight decisions to make in April — for mayor, for six at-large districts, and an in-district campaign. That’s a lot.

We think voters are up to it. The next four years here will be crucial, and the decisions made next year are important.