Demands to improve funding for public services to better support Kansas City, Missouri, residents who are unhoused or experiencing housing insecurity — and simultaneously decrease the budget of the Kansas City Police Department — took center stage at the city’s in-person public budget hearing Feb. 27.
About 50 Kansas City residents attended the meeting inside Municipal Arena in downtown Kansas City to learn more about the proposed $1.73 billion budget and provide feedback on the allocation of funds and the ways the budget could better reflect the needs of the Kansas City community. With two minutes each, attendees voiced their concerns about what they saw as the city continuing to fund the Police Department at the expense of public services that would better serve Kansas City residents.
The public hearing was the second of three meetings hosted by the city, where community members can provide feedback about the budget before the City Council votes to adopt it March 25.
The 2021-2022 budget follows a year dominated and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, where sharp decreases in economic activity caused a $70 million budget shortfall in Kansas City. As the city looks to recover from the pandemic’s economic devastation, the $1.73 billion budget — about $36.8 million less than last year’s — reflects those new economic realities.
Brian Platt, Kansas City’s new city manager, said the 2021-2022 budget was challenging, and emphasized the importance of the public hearings.
“This is one of the most important parts of this entire process, is to make sure that we’re doing it right, that we’re reflecting the needs and desires and the priorities of the people in this city,” Platt said.
Members of the City Council joined the meeting either in person or virtually. Mayor Quinton Lucas left before public comments began to attend the funeral for former Kansas City Councilwoman Carol Coe. Councilwoman Heather Hall oversaw the public comments section of the meeting.
A city budget as a ‘moral document’
A majority of comments focused on increased funding for housing services, with specific demands to fund the Office of Tenant Advocate, a city agency borne out of the Tenant Bill of Rights that was passed by the City Council in December 2019. Several attendees also expressed concern about a lack of funding for services to assist unhoused people in Kansas City.
“Every budget is a moral document,” said KC Tenants director Tara Raghuveer after the meeting. “This budget reflects that the city cares more about private property, private profits and police than they do about human lives.”
The third most discussed topic during the public hearing was the proposed $261 million budget of the Kansas City Police Department. The big, overarching question that came from many attendees: Why does the Police Department get so much, when things like housing services get so little?
For instance, the budget for neighborhoods, housing and healthy communities — which includes the Health Department, housing services, and Parks and Recreation — makes up 11.4% of the proposed budget. In comparison, the budget for public safety — which includes the Police Department, Fire Department and Municipal Court — makes up 28.7%.
Concerns about how much money is being allocated to the Police Department comes in the wake of protests last summer, where community members and activists demanded justice for those killed by the Kansas City Police Department and the defunding of the department, either fully or partially.
Though the Police Department’s budget is about 4% percent less than last year’s budget, it still takes up the bulk of the city budget. Because the department is controlled by the state of Missouri through a five-member Board of Police Commissioners, where the Kansas City mayor is the only publicly elected official, state law mandates that the Kansas City Police Department be funded at a minimum of 20% percent of the city’s general fund.
In the current budget, the department’s budget makes up about 42% of the city’s general fund. Across the U.S., police departments are one of the largest, if not the largest, expenditures funded by local city governments.
Kansas City resident Gabrielle Stanley emphasized the need for the city to better fund housing rights and tenants rights. After the meeting, Stanley said the current budget reflects the city’s prioritization of the Police Department.
“What’s reflected right now is that they want to have a large militarized force of police to keep us in check,” Stanley said.
Budget prioritization of tenants and unhoused residents
Chants of “our city, our money” echoed periodically around the Municipal Arena on Saturday morning, where members of KC Tenants, dressed in matching yellow shirts, made up a majority of the crowd and the bulk of public comments. Their collective demand: more funding for the Office of Tenant Advocate.
KC Tenants leader Ashley Johnson, who has been unhoused herself, said the budget didn’t include or represent the voices of people like her. It’s why she came to the meeting to demand that the Office of Tenant Advocate receive full funding.
“We’re here to say that people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Johnson said after the hearing. “We’re not gonna take what you’ve given us, we’re gonna demand what we need.”
In passing the Tenant Bill of Rights, the mayor and council committed to establishing an office to “serve as a permanent voice for residents within the City.” Thus, the Office of Tenant Advocate was created to implement and enforce the Tenant Bill of Rights and represent tenants in Kansas City.
KC Tenants requested $1.2 million in a submitted budget proposal to the city last year to allocate more funding for the Office of Tenant Advocate under the Division of Housing and Community Development, Tenant Advocacy. That proposal included positions for five full-time employees and 10 contract employees, according to a copy of a budget proposal provided by KC Tenants at the meeting.
Currently, the city has two full-time employees for the office.
Krista Morrison, budget officer for Kansas City, addressed funding for the Office of Tenant Advocate during a presentation of the budget, and said it’s “deceiving” how the funding is presented in the budget. Morrison said funds for contracts for eviction services are moved from the general fund to an “alternative funding source,” but it was not specified what exactly that source is. Morrison also said the city is adding one tenant advocate position into the budget.
In last year’s budget, the Office of Tenant Advocate received $327,764. In the new 2021-2022 budget, the office received less funding: $111,495, which is 9% of the funding proposed by KC Tenants.
Kansas City resident Justice Horn voiced support for funding the Office of Tenant Advocate, adding that having safer communities benefits the entire city.
“Those that are hurting the most should be the priority to the city,” he said. “… It seems like it’s a budget just to continue to move the city forward, but we can’t move forward if we have people hurting in our community.”
Councilman Eric Bunch, who represents the 4th District encompassing downtown Kansas City, the historic northeast, the Country Club Plaza and parts of Clay County, announced via Twitter that he will be introducing an amendment to the council to fund the Office of Tenant Advocate for the $1.2 million proposed by KC Tenants.
During her comment, KC Tenants leader Jenay Manley asked each council member present if they would support Bunch’s amendment, but no council member responded.
Several attendees also advocated for increased funding for services to support unhoused people in Kansas City, mentioning the Scott Eicke Warming Center inside the Kansas City Convention Center. Named after an unhoused man who died in the cold on New Year’s Day this year, the warming center is located just a block away from Saturday’s public meeting.
Chris Miller, who is currently unhoused, said the city needs to better fund services to support unhoused people, particularly services centered around mental health.
Miller has been staying at the warming center at Bartle Hall. While he says it’s a good, temporary solution, he wants to see more done to help unhoused people in the city.
“I want a long-term solution of getting people off the streets,” Miller said, standing outside the warming center after the hearing. “Getting us housing, food assistance, mental health crisis, you know, the whole nine yards.”