By John Sharp
The city of KCMO was ordered today to continue at least temporarily to pay any expenditures incurred by the Kansas City Police Department authorized under its city approved fiscal year 2021-22 budget by Jackson County Circuit Judge Kevin Harrell.
The Department’s budget was approved on April 27 by the Board of Police Commissioners after the City Council on March 25 adopted the city’s overall budget for the fiscal year including the Department’s budget.
However, on May 20 Mayor Quinton Lucas and eight City Council members introduced and passed an ordinance on a 9-4 vote that stripped approximately $42.3 million from the Department’s previously approved budget for this fiscal year. A companion ordinance authorized the city manager to negotiate with the Police Board for the possible restoration of all or part of the funding and the possible addition of $3 million “as necessary” for a new recruit class.
On May 28 the Board of Police Commissioners filed a lawsuit to overturn the City Council’s actions. The suit asked the court to order the city to return the $42.3 million originally appropriated to the Department and to ban the city from cutting police funding after the Board adopts the Department’s annual budget relying on the city’s appropriation of funding. It also asked the court to prohibit the city from dictating funding priorities for the Department for amounts it gives the Department exceeding the 20 percent of its general revenue as required by state law.
Judge Harrell’s order, which was agreed to by both parties, gives the city 14 days from today to respond to the suit’s request that the city be ordered to return the $42.3 million appropriated to the Department.
The ordinances being challenged were Introduced and passed by the Council the same day without being assigned to a committee for a hearing to allow public input as is customary. Introducing and passing an ordinance the same day is generally only done for emergencies. The ordinances contained accelerated effective dates so they became effective five days after being approved by the mayor.
The suit claims nobody notified any members of the Board or Department that the ordinances were being introduced until earlier that day when Lucas left a voicemail for Chief Rick Smith.
The ordinance reducing the Department’s funding specified what police services would be cut. Over half of the cuts totaling nearly $22 million would come from slashing funding for the Central, East and Metro Patrol Divisions in the heart of the city that have much higher levels of violent and property crimes than the North, Shoal Creek and South Patrol Divisions.
To date this year, 48 of the city’s 62 homicides (77%) have occurred in these three divisions.
The ordinance deletes approximately $9.7 million from Central Patrol, $8.3 million from Metro Patrol and $4 million from East Patrol. The suit states the ordinance completely eliminates funding for personnel for the Central and Metro Patrol Divisions and eliminates almost half the funding for personnel for East Patrol.
Other major reductions include approximately $8.8 million for risk management, $3.6 million for purchasing, $1.9 million for building operations, $1.7 million for fleet operations and $1.3 million for the communications support unit.
Even with these major cuts, the ordinance said the city will still be appropriating 20 percent of its general revenue for this fiscal year to the Department as required by state law.
The $42.3 million that was cut was transferred by the ordinance to a new community services and prevention fund under the control of the city manager.
The companion ordinance authorizes the city manager to negotiate an agreement with the Board “not to exceed” the $42.3 million that was cut to provide as yet unspecified “community engagement, outreach, prevention, intervention and other public services” plus $3 million “as necessary” to fund a new recruit class for a possible total of $45.3 million.
Since the ordinances passed, Lucas has issued two written statements claiming this increases funding to the Police Department, but that will only happen if the manager and the Board negotiate an agreement to restore the entire $42.3 million and to add $3 million “as necessary” for a new recruit class.
There is no provision in the ordinance for any of these funds to be appropriated to the Department without such an agreement governing their use, and the lawsuit claims the funds will not be made available “if the Board declines to spend the money as the city dictates”.
Fear of staffing cuts that would be necessary if the funding is not restored is causing officers to consider applying for jobs with other law enforcement agencies, according to Brad Lemon, president of Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99.
The lawsuit says the money was not stripped from the Department budget because of any financial shortfall, and claims that in several public statements Lucas confirmed the ordinances were “not meant to save money but to shift control of the police department’s budget from the Board to the Mayor and City Council”.
The suit, authorized by the four local residents on the Board appointed by the governor and opposed by Lucas who is the fifth member, names Lucas, all City Council members, the city manager and finance director in their official capacities and the city as defendants.
It claims it was filed in response to the city’s “efforts to hinder and obstruct the Board’s management and control of the police department’s budget in violation of state law”.
On the day the suit was filed, Bishop Mark Tolbert, Board president, said, “An unexpected $42 million change to our budget risks a disruption in services to our citizens.”
”I ask the Mayor and the City Council withdraw the two ordinances at issue,” Tolbert said, noting otherwise the Board will be forced to continue its suit.
“The Board of Police Commissioners stands ready to negotiate next year’s budget, and we hope to continue dialogue with the Mayor, the City Council and other stakeholders,” he said.
In a statement issued in response to the suit, Lucas said, “Kansas City will fight vigorously this effort to keep our hands tied in solving one of our greatest challenges for decades.”
“Kansas City will fight to shine light on best practices and community collaboration with our police officers, rather than stay in the dark about where taxpayer money goes, what we’re doing, and how the hell we can once and for all get out of this situation,” he said.
On a more conciliatory note, Lucas said, “Over the past week, the City Manager has met in person with the police chief and conversations are ongoing about how the department working with the City can make us safer.”
Even with current staffing levels, police officials have noted that all available officers in various patrol divisions are often on calls and are not available to respond when additional 911 calls come in.
Cars are routinely dispatched to answer calls in other patrol divisions, Captain Martin Cobbinah, city liaison for the Department, told a recent City Council committee hearing.
Major Darren Ivey, commander of the South Patrol Division, said in a recent interview that there are times every day when all on duty officers in his divisions are already on calls and not available to respond when new calls for service come in.
While he said his minimum staffing is supposed to be six officers and one sergeant at its lowest level, he told a May 19 meeting of the Southern Communities Coalition his staffing is sometimes down to only four officers.
“This is a true crisis for us,” Ivey said.
The KCMO Police Department was placed under state control in 1939 in an attempt to clean up the rampant corruption of the Pendergast political machine.
Restoring city control of the Department would take approval of the General Assembly that most political observers think is currently highly unlikely or a statewide petition drive and successful statewide public vote.
If either occurs, the Department could be placed under the control of the city manager as most city departments are or the present Board of Police Commissioners could be replaced by a board appointed by the mayor with the approval of the City Council as is currently done with the City Parks & Recreation Department.
John Sharp is a former city councilman for the 6th District and a state legislator.