When Kansas City coughed up $24 million for improvements, one neighborhood's leaders put politics over people 

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.

Forced to change course, Funkhouser and the City Council came up with what they called a "local stimulus plan." It resembled Schools First in that it called for a $90 million bond sale. But instead of sprucing up schools, the money would be spent on streets, sewers and other assets, including the zoo and Municipal Auditorium.

The plan earmarked $24 million for neighborhood projects, with each of the six council districts receiving $4 million. The council passed it, 11-2, on June 3. Fifth District Councilwoman Cindy Circo voted for it. So did the 5th District's Terry Riley, who touted the measure's job-creating powers. "We're dealing with the bottom line of putting people back to work," he said.

Ideas for neighborhood projects poured into City Hall. The city received 275 applications from people who live and work in the 5th District alone. Amy Lopez asked the city to put in a basketball court at U.S. Highway 40 and Phelps Road. Gwendolyn Colton complained about the difficulty she has using her wheelchair on the sidewalks near the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center. Dolores Dick drew a neat map of the intersection of 87th Street and Hillcrest, which she believes needs a stoplight.

Residents in other council districts made similar requests, and the best ideas have been identified. In the 3rd District, several sidewalk projects are in the works, most costing less than $200,000. The 1st District will install streetlights, correct drainage issues and spend $700,000 on three parks.

But the requests from the 5th District are, for the moment, just sheets of paper in an accordion folder on the 18th floor of City Hall.

Yes, the 5th District will get its $4 million, but not until next year. Despite the obvious need on display in Jenkins' flooding driveway, his council representatives are refusing to spend the money now.

Circo defends her decision to withhold the money, telling The Pitch that the way the city is dispersing the $24 million is unfair. The requests were rushed through something called the Public Improvements Advisory Committee, she says, which makes recommendations to the City Council about which projects deserve funding. In a typical year, the advisory committee gets inundated with proposals. Then Funkhouser put on his Santa hat and asked for wish lists.

"All of it is frivolous," Circo tells me. "Because people thought there was more money, so they just threw in projects that would never come our way. So we have to weed out all those."

But the other council members managed to do the weeding in time for the fall construction season, sensing the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful without strangling themselves and their constituents in red tape. So more than caution seems to be guiding Circo. More likely, it's her distaste for the mayor, whose $24 million plan she calls "a campaign ploy."

Riley, Circo's 5th District colleague, says he's being true to his commitment to put people back to work. He notes that the bond sale included $33 million for street-resurfacing projects, which are happening. And the $4 million? "We're prioritizing with our neighborhood leaders," Riley says. They're just doing it really slowly.

As for Jenkins, his frustration with City Hall predates the "local stimulus" and feels anything but frivolous, especially because he's had to cut down an evergreen that died from water damage. The latest home remedy that he's considering is a short wall made of railroad ties and rebar on the Vermont side of his front lawn. If it's not up to code, so be it.

"I don't care if they say anything," Jenkins says. "Too bad. Fix your damn street. Your water in your street is what's causing my problem."

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