Making a Good System Better: Suggestions for Kansas City Government
All politics, as they say, is local. But the politics in some
places (think St. Louis and St. Louis County) are much more local
than in other places that have a smaller number of elected officials
and governmental entities serving larger populations (think Kansas
City and Jackson County).
As a policy analyst who has studied local and municipal
government for many years, I know there is solid economic
evidence that having too many elected officials often leads to higher
levels of spending. On balance, therefore, I prefer the Kansas
City/Jackson County system to that of its eastern Missouri rival.
However, that is not to say that Kansas City — or any other
metro area — has devised the perfect system. The following are three
suggestions for changes to government in Kansas City and Jackson
County that I believe would benefit the citizens.
First, at-large elected officials should be truly at-large.
Both Kansas City and Jackson County should do what
Independence does, and have their at-large elected officials
represent the entire city, or county, without being expected to partly
represent districts or wards as well. There are economic studies that
demonstrate lower spending in cities with true at-large elected
Though Kansas City and Jackson County councils both elect
councilmembers at-large, those at-large officials are also designated
to represent certain areas. This mitigates one of the major benefits
of electing officials at-large, which is to avoid a situation in which
politicians compete to bring home the most pork for their districts.
For at-large officials who are truly at-large, every spending decision
presents a cost that the entire population bears.
Last year, Kansas City’s The Pitch documented how one
district’s at-large councilmembers wanted to spend more than $1
million acquiring new parkland within their district even though
(according to the Pitch) the city is having trouble maintaining the
parks it already operates.
Second, Kansas City municipalities should privatize their local
Unlike many of parts of Missouri, most cities in the Kansas City
area have municipal water utilities. Independence even has a municipal
electric utility. The private sector is entirely capable of providing those
services to the public in a more efficient manner than local governments.
These municipal utilities should be auctioned off to private companies.
That would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the Kansas City area.
At the same time, it would expand the property tax base by putting those
assets on the tax rolls; shrink the public-sector workforce; and relieve
fiscal pressures on local governments.
Third and finally, Kansas City should reform the manner in which
it makes tax incentive decisions such as tax increment financing (TIF).
Kansas City citizens and officials should work with state
legislatures to alter how TIF decisions are made in Kansas City. Cities
currently dominate TIF commissions, and are generally focused on their
own well-being with little thought given to schools and other independent
taxing districts. Cities can even override a TIF commission’s rejection of
a plan with a simple super-majority vote of the city council. Counties are
far better able to look at the big picture, and county officials are
responsible to all of the citizens that a TIF affects. Local TIF commissions
should be changed and the statewide rules amended so that only counties
may enact TIFs. This includes ending the ability of cities to override the
TIF commission. This change would likely result in fewer TIFs, with a
greater appreciation for their effects on the entire community when they
are enacted. In essence, Jackson County, not Missouri’s TIF capitol,
Sugar Creek, would be making tax decisions that affect all of Jackson
The Kansas City region has generally chosen a government system
with fewer elected officials and larger, more efficient governments. That
system has served the area well, but these changes could make it even
more cost-effective and responsible to the citizens.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes
market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.