by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor
A deadly shooting left Kansas City Mayor Sly James in a somber mood last Wednesday at a joint luncheon hosted by the Platte County Economic Development Council, Northland Clay County EDC and the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce at the KCI Hilton.
James told politicians and business leaders in attendance that he wasn't much in the mood for celebrating following another shooting in Kansas City. So far this year, there have been 52 homicide victims in Kansas City, according to Kansas City crime statistics reported to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
In his opening message, James said in order to get a handle on gun violence first society needs to address the root cause “guns.”
He expressed sheer frustration over the continuous gun violence and urged elected officials to stop its spread.
“I don't care how you slice it. I don't care how you dice it, it is an impossibility. We can't say it is okay for 19-year-olds to have guns lawfully but be illegally drunk,” said James. “We can't say it's okay to have a gun in your car and then ask cops to go up and talk to people in cars at night. We cannot say that everybody should have a gun but then when someone uses the gun for the wrong purpose to act like it is somehow weird. It is not.”
James said he understands the arguments for gun rights and admitted when he was in the Marine Corp he discharged his weapon more often than “what people probably have ever seen,” but warned there are people who should not have guns.
Education was another concern raised by James on Wednesday. Approximately 35 percent of the students in the Kansas City School District read at a third grade level, he said.
“We know that 75 percent of the kids that do not read proficiently at a third grade level will never catch up and we know that those are the kids that wind up in jail,” said James.
Even the prison system sees the existing connection between those who can't read fluently and the incarceration rate in our prisons and jails.
“We know that 80 percent of the prison population reads at a fourth grade level. Who knew?” asked James. “Well the people that build prison cells do, because they look at those levels and decide how many they're going to be building.”
He questioned why there wasn't more of a public outcry. Looking beyond the “pockets of excellence” in the Northland, James said in order for Kansas City to be “truly great we have to have excellence across the board.”
“One of the things I want us to become known for is a city that cares for everyone in it. And that when they hurt, we hurt. When they need, we satisfy that need. When we succeed, we all party,” said James.
On a lighter note, James said there are a great number of successes to celebrate.
Kansas City's reputation for supporting and recognizing veterans was a driving factor that led TriWest Health Care Alliance to the area, he acknowledged. The administrative services they provide will support the health care needs of our nation's veterans and bring an estimated 500 new jobs to Platte County.
James also recognized the automotive industry, which accounts for 18,000 jobs in the Kansas City area.
“That is pretty good, second only to Detroit,” he said.
James said the local automotive industry continues to flourish thanks to Gov. Jay Nixon, who signed the Missouri Manufacturing Jobs Act of 2010. The act, created by Jerry Nolte of Clay County, resulted in a $1.1 billion investment in the Ford Assembly Plant, including the addition of a 437,000 square foot stamping facility.
Mayor Sly said Kansas City is also a place that supports entrepreneurs who bring new jobs and economic growth to the area.
Over the last few years, James said there has been the influx of entrepreneurism.
“We don't know whether one or the other will be the next Cerner, but we do know we maximize our potential return by being a place that is a comfortable place for entrepreneurs to come.”
James said Kansas City is distinct from many other cities in that it has the space for new development.
Kansas Citians have made a “$43 million investment in sewers and infrastructure and opened up more than 20 square miles of development,” he said.
James said Kansas City needs to grow.
“If we can get 50, 60, or 70,000 people into this city over the next 10 years, which would be an astounding pattern of growth, that would be something that would be worth writing home about.”
The debate on whether to repair the existing Kansas City International Airport or construct a new facility was another controversial topic of discussion the mayor did not shy away from.
James told the 450 attendees that doing nothing is not an option. The best option, he said, is making a decision that will foster growth in the long term.
“We need to do what is in the best interest of the city, not today, but for the next 40 years,” said the mayor.
James said it is also important to remember that there are a variety of businesses located on airport property.
“We need to continue to do all those things that promote job growth, business development, and sustainability,” he said.
In the mayor's closing remarks, he brought up the significance of the earnings tax. Kansas City residents pay a flat income tax of one percent of their total earnings to the city. Non-residents who work in Kansas City also pay the one percent earnings tax to Kansas City.
James said the funds derived from the earnings tax are crucial and account for 40 percent of the general fund.
Compared to some other cities, he said, Kansas City is sparsely populated.
“We have 318 square miles and 470,000 people,” said James. “Yet we have an equivalent amount of infrastructure to maintain as Los Angeles and Manhattan.”
If voters failed to support the earnings tax next April, James said there would no way to recover that amount of money. “Can't do it through property tax, can't do it through sales tax and can't do it through fees.”