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If a new department head has his way, Kansas City, Missouri’s city government will act more as a helper and less as an enforcer in neighborhoods.
The Kansas City Council approved the creation of a standalone Housing and Community Development Department and a separate Neighborhoods and Community Services Department — splitting what used to be the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department.
The Housing Department will focus on affordable housing, services for unhoused people and tenant advocacy. The Neighborhoods Services Department will prioritize neighborhood preservation and livability.
The new director of the Neighborhoods Department is Forest Decker, who was appointed to the role in October. Decker has nearly 20 years of public service under his belt, and previously worked in Kansas City’s Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments.
We sat down with Decker to discuss his goals, vision and policy priorities for the Neighborhoods and Community Services Department.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Beacon: Can you describe your vision for the Neighborhoods Department, especially now that it’s separated from the housing function?
Forest Decker: My vision is to create a team that works within the community to ensure the city is supporting active and vibrant neighborhoods. We want to do this by focusing on neighborhood improvements and neighborhood engagement, community engagement with the residents, rather than just on ticketing and code enforcement, for example.
The Beacon : Is that the major shift that you’re planning for this department — not necessarily focusing so much on code enforcement, but those other goals that you’ve laid out?
Forest Decker: Yeah, to pivot more to an engagement model and to a “yes” model. Being more engaged with the residents, helping them find solutions to their issues when it comes to property violations, nuisance violations, things like that. In the past that department has focused upon the enforcement aspect, where we hope to transition into more of an abatement and solutions-oriented, data-oriented department.
The Beacon: Are there any programs that you’re really going to be focusing on?
Forest Decker: The biggest division is the neighborhood preservation division, which is basically the code enforcement. … So that’s going to be my biggest focus initially, to move that division into more of a collaborative, outreach-based organization, rather than an enforcement organization. We’ll be adding some other divisions in the spring prior to the budget cycle. They’ll all be things that are kind of collaborative at that neighborhood level and complementary. So I’m sure I’ll have some focus at that point to bring some cohesiveness to the different neighborhood-level initiatives that the city has going to make sure that we’re all on the same page.
The Beacon: Can you say what new divisions you are thinking of bringing into the department?
Forest Decker: One would be the Office of Digital Equity. Currently, the city does not have a digital equity manager or any staff but … we’ve known that there’s been a digital divide in Kansas City. It’s become very apparent during COVID, obviously. And there are a lot of funds available at the federal and state level to help address that. But there’s not any city entity that has a direct collaboration with neighborhoods, where the biggest need is. So we’re proposing as part of our budget process this year to create an Office of Digital Equity. The second one would be an Office of Arts and Culture.
The Beacon: How do you plan on addressing the different needs of every neighborhood? A neighborhood in Midtown might have different needs than a neighborhood in south Kansas City. How do you plan on balancing all of those needs and making sure that every neighborhood feels heard and seen by the city?
Forest Decker: So my plan is to retask positions and create some new positions that are — I’m not sure that they’ll be called this yet — but they’re basically neighborhood liaisons or community liaisons. And have them … be embedded within the community. My vision is for that to be people’s first contact with the city if they have an issue or a question or anything else. So the liaison’s job will be to coordinate … and to help residents navigate through the process of reaching those departments, finding out how to submit a request if they need to, or just get simple things addressed such as potholes, tree trimming.
The Beacon: One thing I wanted to ask you about was specifically the dangerous buildings program. It’s something that’s an issue in a lot of Kansas City neighborhoods east of Troost where a lot of those dangerous buildings are concentrated. Do you have any thoughts about running the program differently or running it in a way where the city doesn’t just keep accumulating dangerous buildings and actually puts them to some use?
Forest Decker: Dangerous buildings is something I’ve been talking with the staff about recently. We have a lot of positions open there. We currently don’t have a dangerous buildings manager. I’m trying to get staffed up to the point where we can be effective. The immediate problem is that there’s no more funding. That was all funded through a bond initiative some years back to address the backlog. Well, we’re through the bond period, to where now we don’t have any money to (demolish) dangerous buildings. So that’s part of my budget process for this coming year — is trying to fund the program again.
The Beacon: Do you still anticipate working closely with the standalone housing department?
Forest Decker: One of my goals is that we don’t operate in a silo at all. In fact, I’ve already started having regular meetings with directors from multiple departments. Things we need to accomplish, we can’t do it on our own. We’re not a big enough department. We don’t have equipment, specialized equipment, things like that, to do a lot of the things that we’re going to be tasked with.
The Beacon: What would you say are going to be some of your overall goals in this first year as director of a standalone neighborhoods department?
Forest Decker: Some of my biggest goals will be … to reframe the department as a data-driven, collaborative team that serves as that liaison between neighborhoods and community leaders and city internal operations, like public works, water, parks, housing, things like that. That’s probably going to be my biggest overarching goal, is to get that organizational structure in place.
The Beacon: You’ve worked with the city in different department positions for many years. How do you think your previous experience in those departments will inform your approach now?
Forest Decker: I’ve worked in parks and recreation, and was most recently the deputy director for public works. So I had the opportunity to work with various neighborhood groups. That’s a pretty big advantage. … I know many of the leaders in neighborhood organizations and community and outreach organizations and things like that. So it’s a lot of people that I’ve been working with for years. Being in those two departments gave me a pretty good understanding of whatever neighborhoods talk about. You know, “We need this,” “We need that.” I know the process for getting that done.
The Beacon: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you wanted to add or anything else that you think people should know?
Forest Decker: Our department is really wanting to focus on that overall improvement of the livability of neighborhoods. We can make neighborhoods more connected — not only to the city and what the city’s services are, but how they can be more connected to each other, how they can be more connected to the arts and culture character of our city.