By Jill Draper
Kansas City code enforcement officers will become more like mobile 311 liaisons in Forest Decker’s vision of the new Department of Neighborhoods and Community Services. Decker, who became director of the department last fall, talked about plans to improve the health and livability of neighborhoods on Jan. 10 at a meeting of the South KC Community Alliance.
Some 50 liaisons will have offices apart from City Hall in places like community centers and smaller city buildings, and will serve as advocates for neighborhoods in their interactions with other departments like water, parks, planning and public works.
“We want neighborhood engagement—not just enforcement,” Decker said.
Details, including the titles and duties of the liaison positions, are still being worked out and won’t be official until the City Council approves next year’s budget in March, he said.
The changes come from a rearrangement of city services last year. Housing and the Land Bank were split off as a separate department and other offices such as KC Biz Care, 311, Data KC, Environmental Quality, and Arts and Culture moved from the City Manager to Neighborhoods.
“It’s a big variety, but we’ll be a medium-sized department with about 160 people when fully staffed,” Decker said. A full staff is not the current situation. Like nearly every other city department and many private businesses, about one-third of positions in Neighborhoods are vacant, according to Decker.
Among his immediate priorities are listening to what KC residents want (“Right now I’m going to tons and tons of neighborhood meetings”) and updating the city’s list of neighborhoods and homeowner associations. About 750 are on the list and maybe 120 are up to date, he said. That’s partly because some entries are based on 100-year-old platted maps.
“What I think we’ll find is we need more active neighborhoods,” he said, noting that many federal and regional grants are available only for registered neighborhoods. Even city programs like dumpster rentals for community cleanup days are designed for neighborhood associations.
Decker has worked about 20 years in various city positions, including city forester and parks superintendent, environmental management, assistant manager of solid waste and deputy director of public works. He said his experience provides a good background for improving neighborhoods, but he’s still learning. “Right now I have about 300 neighborhood leaders in my phone.”
At the same Jan. 10 meeting, Councilman Kevin O’Neill, 1st District At-Large, praised Decker and City Manager Brian Platt’s decision to appoint him as the Neighborhoods director. “Forest solved so many of our problems with trash,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill also mentioned the city manager will be introducing a new pay scale for city employees in the next few weeks. Decker described it as an overall market compensation study that compares KCMO positions with other cities as well as the private market. He said salaries for some employees were at good levels, but others were “woefully underpaid,” including engineers and labor positions such as tree trimmers and jobs requiring a commercial driver’s license.
“The market is changing so fast,” he noted. “We’re not always competing with other cities, but with Walmart, Amazon and Federal Express.”
Decker also said the Office of Environmental Quality will be adding a more local focus to its previous initiatives. The office plans to release an updated climate protection policy at the first City Council meeting in March.
Decker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.