Two years ago, Robert Jenkins bought a house near Sterling Avenue. The home was in foreclosure, which might explain what he spent for it: $41,000, in cash, for a postwar ranch like thousands of others that dot Kansas City, Missouri.
Jenkins, who works as a dispatcher, lives in the house with his girlfriend, her mother and two of his grandkids. Inflatable Halloween decorations — Frankenstein driving a tractor, Garfield dressed as a witch — crowd the front yard. His Christmas display will put it to shame.
With no mortgage, Jenkins has financial peace of mind when he drags out the holiday lawn ornaments. But the house is in many ways a burden, and runaway storm water is usually to blame.
Jenkins lives on a section of East 49th Street that slopes from east to west. His house sits on a corner. There is no curb to catch the rainwater as it comes down Vermont Avenue. So water rushes across 20 feet of lawn before it crashes into the side of his house and drowns his driveway. "I guarantee you, if it's raining at all, my driveway is a good 6 inches deep in water," Jenkins says.
In May, Mayor Mark Funkhouser asked residents and neighborhood groups for ideas about how to spend $24 million. The city was looking for small, easily completed projects, he said.
"It may be sidewalks, curbs and gutters, catch basins, traffic signals, crosswalks or park improvements," the mayor said in a release. "Look for those projects which, if completed, could give the biggest improvement for the lowest cost."
Jenkins came up with just such a proposal, one of about 1,100 that the city received. A curb and gutter would solve his drainage problem, he said. As it stands now, he buys dirt by the truckload to replace the earth that unchecked storm water washes away. "It's like a river coming down through here," says Jenkins, who seeds the fill dirt with zoysia because it controls erosion better than other grasses.
As the whirring sump pump in Jenkins' basement can attest, Kansas City neighborhoods do not lack for urgent repairs. But Jenkins won't see any crews working outside his house this fall. That's because he lives in the City Council's 5th District, and his council representatives are essentially boycotting the distribution of the $24 million.
Politics, as you might imagine, plays a part in Jenkins' plight, which he might title "Waiting for Concrete."
It all started in January. That's when Funkhouser announced an initiative called Schools First, which would devote $100 million to rebuild sidewalks, roads and other infrastructure around the city's schools. He also wanted to use the public-safety tax (up for renewal on the November ballot) to increase police presence in and around school buildings.
Funkhouser had come into office promising to help the Kansas City, Missouri, School District in ways that his predecessors hadn't. But short of taking control of a school district, there's not much a big-city mayor can do. Until his funding plan, Funkhouser had done little more than propose an education summit at the Sprint Center — as if the riddle of urban education could be cracked during a one-day meeting inside a sports arena.
Schools First was a more substantive proposal. It was also nakedly political. Heading into the final year of his first term, Funkhouser was looking for a signature accomplishment, something that could define him as more than a henpecked clod.
Funkhouser, however, failed to muster enough support for his plan. Council members, many of them reluctant to get behind any effort to elevate the mayor's stature, said it was shaky policy. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and other important civic groups shrugged.