A recent column by Dave Helling in The Kansas City Star called for Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas to challenge Port KC, the city’s port authority, by asking for the resignation of the authority’s board of commissioners. Part of the reason was Port KC’s willingness to offer incentives to Google (a story we wrote about recently). This move apparently irritated the mayor, who had promised to rein in economic development subsidies.
The mayor’s irritation may have been exacerbated by Port KC CEO Jon Stephens’ reaction to the border war truce. He oddly offered that despite the truce, the port authority could “proactively recruit” businesses from the Kansas side of the border but that it wouldn’t. The quote does not present Stephens as a team player on economic development reform.
When asked if the port authority was just a way to grant tax incentives while avoiding city council and public scrutiny, Stephens answered [starts at 19:38):
I would say that that’s certainly is not something that I would consider. I view everything [Prima facie] on exactly what is the net benefit. And I can tell you that we’re working very hard on our social equity: how we roll out to communicate exactly what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and how we’re going to communicate to the citizens and their elected officials.
I’m not sure what any of that means, but it’s a disappointment for anyone hoping the answer was simply “no.”
Even if the port authority is a subdivision of the state of Missouri, Kansas City leaders have the ability to rein it in. Its board is appointed by the mayor and state statute allows the city council to, “from time to time enlarge or reduce the area comprising any port district” with the approval of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. Perhaps restricting future Port KC activity to within a quarter mile from the Missouri River is a good way to make sure that it cannot keep issuing incentives downtown or even, as Helling points out, south of Country Club Plaza. In appointing a new board, the mayor could make sure that within that quarter mile of the river, Port KC is acting in the best interests of taxpayers.
Missouri’s economic development policy is littered with legislative good intentions warped by subsidy-seeking developers and consultants. Such legislation must be revisited to clamp down on abuse. In many cases it’s the statutory definitions that must be revisited; in this case it may be port authority boundaries. Port KC has demonstrated it is unable—and perhaps unwilling—to restrain itself to development along the river. The mayor and city council—and perhaps the state legislature—should do it for them.