The mayor recoiled as if O'Byrne were holding a fistful of dog poop. "That smells horrible!" she said, then smiled.
"That's the smell of progress!" O'Byrne gleefully told her and the city council members who'd gathered in City Manager Bob Collins' office on April 4.
In his hand was a rock of fresh black asphalt. It's what Kansas City's streets should be made of rather than the anemic gray clump he crumbled next.
Barnes had appointed O'Byrne to a committee of businessmen who are telling City Hall how to run more efficiently. For the moment, let's not ask why the city council needed a 27-page report from this crew to tell them our streets are completely jacked.
Compared with eleven "benchmark" cities (like Memphis, Indianapolis and Austin), our pavement is basically the worst. We don't have anywhere near the number of street workers we need. The ones we do have apparently don't know how to use day planners -- "Crews are often removed from a job in one portion of the city ... to correct [citizen] complaints that often are of lesser importance than the scheduled activity," O'Byrne's group found.
O'Byrne's group found ways the street department could be more efficient. It also recommended spending more money on streets.
"As far as I can remember -- and I've been here 35 years -- the city has not put as much money into the annual street-preservation program as we needed to keep up," says Public Works Director Ed Wolf. "We took it in the butt this year."
There is, however, a wad of cash on the horizon. And watching the council hem and haw about how to spend it, it's obvious why things don't get done in this town.
On May 23, the council decided to ask voters in August to approve $35 million in new debt for "capital maintenance" and "strategic public improvements." But the council hasn't said what it intends to do with the money, which is aggravating some of the same cranky voters who stopped light rail last summer and blocked a mundane city charter update in November. Out in the neighborhoods, activists are almost paranoid in their distrust of City Hall.
"I am afraid that the decision [about how to spend the $35 million] has already been made we are just not going to be told the details until after we give our approval," wrote Mark Esping in his May 28 "Neighborhood Hotline" e-mail newsletter. He encouraged neighborhood leaders not to approve the bond money. "A NO vote tells the city council to prepare and present to the citizens a specific allocation of funds before we say Yes."
Well, actually, a "no" vote tells the council that you don't want the city fixed up.
But there's good reason for the neighborhood neurosis; it's sharpened by the fact that powerful business interests want half of the money.
The Civic Council -- the city's top CEOs, who officially run their organization in secret -- along with the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Council, have asked that half of the $35 million go to downtown. The businesses leaders' main spokesman has been the Downtown Council's John Laney.
Over the past few weeks, Laney has testified at council meetings that downtown businesses are planning to tax themselves $1.5 million each year to make their own neighborhood prettier and safer. He's reminded the council that private businesses are helping move the Kansas City Public Library to a new home in a historic bank building at 10th and Baltimore. Developers, he's noted, are building lofts like crazy. "It's time to help us with our investment," he's told the council. He's asked the council to "study" his polls, which show that 70 percent of Kansas City voters think helping downtown is important.
But council members have another poll on their minds. In March, City Auditor Mark Funkhouser released one of his citizen surveys. The news: More of us are satisfied with all of the city's basic services -- except one. "Citizen satisfaction with street maintenance has gone down," Funkhouser noted. Three-quarters of us griped that streets are among the most important things that need to be fixed now.
Barnes wants to spend 45 percent of the money downtown. The projects would be determined by the Greater Downtown Development Authority -- more of her appointees, who have been meeting for five months but have yet to even decide where downtown is or indicate what they might do with our money. Barnes' plan would split the rest between street maintenance and neighborhood projects (such as an "aquatic park" up north and another one out south).
Sean O'Byrne favors Barnes' split, but that's understandable, since by day he sells real estate downtown.
Ed Wolf will take what he can get. If he got a third of the money to spend on streets, he says, "Instead of taking eight to ten years to get our streets up to snuff, we could do it in five to six years."
Councilwoman Becky Nace wants "one fact," any fact, showing potential returns on the various investments before making "a $35 million business decision."
Next week, the council will again try to decide on something concrete to put before voters.
Here's our proposal: Build downtown a parking garage. We could get a big honkin' one for around $15 million, or a couple of smaller models for less than $5 million each. Parking garages aren't sexy, but downtown needs them. Without lots of parking, big companies can't move into the empty buildings. (Reportedly because it couldn't work out a parking deal, Midland Loan has decided to take its 450 employees to Corporate Woods instead of renovating the Freight House District's historic Stuart Hall building.) I'd rather buy a garage outright than endure another unseemly discussion about giving some rich company a tax break to build one. And sure, business leaders are the ones who let downtown slide all these years, but they deserve a nod for finally pulling their heads out of their highballs. Besides, it would be entertaining to watch them squabbling for who gets it.
The rest of the money should go to streets -- every last 5,900 lane mile, from the airport to Bannister Mall, from the Plaza to Swope Park. Neighborhood activists couldn't possibly oppose that (could they?). It would be good for their mental health to trust City Hall just a little -- if, in four years, every street were as pristine as Bruce Watkins Drive, voters would be a lot less irritable.
We don't do polls here at the Pitch. We just try to use our heads. And sometimes we get to imagine things, like everybody agreeing on what's best for the city. That's the smell of progress.