Residents of Northeast had the opportunity to meet Kansas City’s new city manager Brian Platt in a virtual event hosted by the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Independence Avenue Community Improvement District (CID), Northeast News, Northeast Alliance Together (NEAT), and Mattie Rhodes Center on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
During the hour long discussion, which was held via Zoom, Platt shared his thoughts on the growth and success of Kansas City and took questions from the audience.
“Having the opportunity to meet and greet Brian Platt is something that should be really important to our community,” said Bobbi Baker-Hughes, President and CEO of the chamber and manager of the CID. “Our city manager is the person that, ultimately, your project is presented to. He is the man with the ability to direct the dollars to successful projects.”
Platt began his position as city manager in December of 2020 after being chosen out of four final candidates following a 13-month long process to find the 16th city manager, which began in the fall of 2019 after the retirement of long-time City Manager Troy Schulte.
Before coming to Kansas City, Platt worked as a business administrator of Jersey City, N.J., since 2018. He also previously served as Jersey City’s first Chief Innovation Officer and established the City’s Office of Innovation in 2015. He consulted on management with McKinsey & Company and served as a kindergarten teacher with Teach for America.
“I hope that what people got out of this is a level of comfort with the city manager, so that they have the same opportunity to ask him and his staff questions about moving our city forward,” Baker-Hughes said.
Northeast News Publisher Michael Bushnell facilitated the conversation, taking questions from the audience attending on Zoom.
Below is a transcription of the discussion. Edits have been made for clarity.
Brian Platt: Thanks everyone for being here tonight. Very, very excited. This is day number 80 for me, but who’s counting at this point? It’s been a fun and unique challenge to join the team here and to get to work on a long list of ways that we can improve Kansas City’s services, and operations, and quality of life for residents across the city.
I’m coming from New Jersey, Jersey City in particular, I had essentially the same role back there. Jersey City’s a little bit smaller. Well, population wise, a little bit smaller. Geography wise, a lot smaller. But what’s been interesting about this role here is that a lot of the challenges that Kansas City is facing are similar to those that we were facing in Jersey City and also have dealt with and resolved, to a certain extent, over the years.
I’ve had a lot of conversations here since coming here, and then I hear an issue that I literally was just working on and I mention some ideas and some possible solutions and if not exactly replicating, we’re getting very close to replicating a lot of those things here, which has been great.
We’re really hitting the ground running a lot and a lot of a lot of ways, I’ll just talk briefly about some of the key things that we’ve been working on here as a team. I’m sure you’re all aware of the budget crisis that we’re in as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re facing a $70 million shortfall as a result of that pandemic and reductions in economic activity that are, as a result, reducing the revenues that we are receiving from a variety of the test sources that we have. What we’re doing is, in a way to close this budget gap, we’re committed to not making any reductions or cuts to essential city services. We’re not interested in even considering layoffs or furloughs of our employees, and we’re taking a very unique and innovative approach to restructuring and rethinking the way we deliver our services to find a more efficient and more cost effective way to do so, and in some cases actually improving that service and reducing the costs at the same time.
There are some certain areas where we’re increasing investments. A couple of those include street resurfacing, which we’re going to talk more about probably starting next week, about our new plans there and additional funding that we’re setting aside there, snow removal, which I hope you’ve seen a dramatic improvement in the way that we’re addressing snow and ice in our city streets. We have our Public Works director here, as well. He’s a big part of the solution there, would love to give him a shout out, Director [Michael] Shaw, he’s on the line.
Another key area focus for us is our services in support that we provide our homeless population in the city. I’m sure you might have heard about the new warming center that we opened at Bartle Hall, and there’s a lot more going on there and a lot more resources that we’re working on through that. Also another big one, another interesting one, is finding ways to improve the culture and supportiveness of the organization itself, and making sure that we’re inclusive and supportive of the many diverse people that we have in the city. And also on the outside of it, that we are doing the same for the people that live here, that we’re not only an organization that reflects the people that we serve and the communities that we serve, but we’re doing what we can to make sure that we’re providing resources and focus in all of the different ways that we need to.
Coming from where I’m just coming from in Jersey City, Jersey City actually was ranked again, for like the fifth year in a row, as the most diverse city in the country. So, I’ve had my experience managing that sort of thing, and, I’m hoping to bring some of that that we were working on to Kansas City, as well.
So, the budget’s been an interesting challenge for us. One really interesting example that I like to give when we talk about how we’re closing this $70 million budget shortfall without cutting essential services is our streetlight conversion program, which I think we actually might have just announced today. An RFP went out last week for this. We have approximately 100,000 streetlights across the city. We spend about $13 million on energy and maintenance of those streetlights. We are moving forward with an aggressive conversion of these streetlights to LED lights. We think we’re going to save millions of dollars from this over time, but also the maintenance costs will reduce significantly. The standard street light bulbs you see out there, the ones that are sort of an orange glow, have to be replaced about every four years, sometimes less. LED street light bulbs can last 10 years or more, so you can already see down the road, half the energy usage, more than twice the life expectancy of the bulb. There’s going to be significant cost savings there. We’re really going to find a way to reduce that $13 million annual cost significantly over time.
The other interesting thing about this is we are seeing ancillary benefits beyond just the financial savings. This initially started as a budget savings lever that we were pulling, but in reality, there are a couple of benefits to it that actually improve a service, so to speak, that we’re providing the city, where our carbon footprint is being reduced by lower energy costs. We’re providing higher quality lighting, which is particularly important in areas where there might be some public safety issues. Also a side note on the lighting, LED bulbs actually allow us to more specifically control the color and the brightness of the bulb. When you think about LED lights you might be thinking about the camera on your cell phone or an LED flashlight, which is a very bright white light. There’s actually an opportunity for us to provide a more natural color to the light, to dial down on the brightness in certain areas or at certain times of day, to really make sure that the light quality is the most visually appealing to people in all neighborhoods.
So, there are just a couple of benefits right off the top there that are more than just budgetary savings, and it’s one example of some interesting and unique ways we’re trying to cut costs while also improving city services. We’re not looking at one silver bullet that is finding us $70 million, necessarily, we’re looking at probably 30-40 things right now, some of them we haven’t even really finished, the streetlight project, for example, is months, probably from actually seeing the bulk of these new lights being installed. So, not everything’s in the actual budget document itself but this is one of 30 or 40 different things that we’re working on there.
Michael Bushnell, Northeast News Publisher: Great to meet you, virtually, and thank you very much for being here. Just right out of the gate, let’s talk about street resurfacing, and what that’s going to look like. As you know, pothole season is here, it’s here early, I don’t think it really ever went away, but that’s an ongoing issue here in Kansas City is potholes. Can you speak a little bit to how that new street program is going to work and what kind of dollars, new dollars, that you’re going to dedicate to that program?
Platt: To give you some perspective, in Jersey City we had about 2,200 miles of streets that we were managing. In Kansas City we have about 2, 000 linear miles, it’s about 6,000 lane miles. So, about 10 times the linear miles of streets here in Kansas City. In Kansas City, last year we budgeted about $17 million for street resurfacing, last year in Jersey City we budgeted about 14 or $15 million. So, 10 times the mileage and almost the same amount of spending. At the end of the day, this is a challenge that just requires funding; it just requires resources to get ahead of it, for the bulk of it, to really get ahead of this. And so what we’re doing this year is we’re trying to find ways to significantly, exponentially increase the dollars that we’re putting towards this. We’re more than doubling the initial capital investment into street resurfacing for this year. We’re hoping to get over $50 million, when it’s all said and done. We’re adding $20 million more from the GOKC bond, and then we have a new policy that we’re putting forward very soon that will be a more strict standard on excavations in the street that will indirectly add funding and resources in street resurfacing. The way it’s going to work is if anyone is excavating a street that’s been resurfaced within a certain amount of time, the excavation company or the contractor will be required to resurface fully, curb to curb, for a large portion of street as a result of that.
One of the challenges that you see that is leading to a lot of potholes and the more rapid degradation of our streets are these excavations. When you have a new street that’s isn’t even three or four years old, and you’re cutting a trench in it to repair a waterline or whatever it is, no matter what you do to repair that patch, it’s never really going to stay together as well as a fully resurfaced street, and then the cracks, the seals, it’s never going to be fully watertight, and it’s that freezing and thawing of the water that starts to really break up the street surface. It’s sort of like cutting a hole in a pizza and trying to put it back together. No matter what you do, it’s never really going to stay together the same way.
So we’re going to hold the third party agencies, companies and contractors much more accountable for this sort of thing. Not only is this going to sort of disincentivize contractors from cutting up recently resurfaced streets, but hopefully it’s going to coordinate the infrastructure improvements and utility repairs that need to be done, regular maintenance or otherwise, more in advance of the street resurfacing so we’re doing a lot less of this over time. At the end of the day we’re going to get a lot more resurfacing out of it as some of these things happen. For example, Evergy or the water department, when they’re tearing up the roads, they’re going to be resurfacing larger sections of the street, not just filling potholes, to make sure that our streets last longer and we get more bang for a buck, so to speak.
There’s some other things that we’re working on there as well, but that’s sort of the high level approach to what we’re thinking here. It’ll likely end up you’ll probably see like a 40 or so million dollar direct investment from the city, which is much more than the 17 that we started with. We could probably get an indirect investment from these third party contractors that are doing extra resurfacing for us of a few million to maybe even 10 or 15 million over time. It’s not unheard of, it’s something that we saw a lot of in New Jersey.
We’re hoping to really rapidly take on some of the worst streets across the city. I will also say a little bit about how we’re going to prioritize our streets, there are two main ways that we’re going to be doing this. One is using technology to uniformly and equitably identify the streets in the worst condition. The technology is essentially a camera that goes in front of a car or truck. The vehicle drives around the city, a camera is taking rapid images of the street surface and doing a visual analysis of the streets to identify the streets with the most imperfections based on the curvature of the street, based on the color, based on everything and anything that’s on that street. That that gives us a very scientific approach of identifying the streets in the worst condition.
However, we’re also going to be doing public feedback to make sure that we’re focusing on the streets that bother the people that live here and use our streets the most. It’s one thing to look at the worst streets in town and I’m sure there are streets that are in very bad condition, but nobody drives on them. It would be a more worthwhile investment for us to focus on the streets that maybe aren’t the worst quality but everyone drives on and everyone’s hitting those two or three potholes on a certain couple of blocks. We’re going to try to balance the two of them we’re going to be working with our council members and our community leaders and groups like this to do what we can to gather a lot of feedback and make sure that we’re targeting the streets that need this sort of thing the most first.
Bushnell: One of the things that plagues so many inner city communities and neighborhoods is the ongoing issue of illegal dumping. We have quite a few illegal dumping sites here in Northeast and the East Side. Certainly without being derogatory, the houseless population kind of adds to that problem. What do you see moving forward? Are you prepared to dedicate extra funds to that illegal dumping issue and how can neighborhoods jump in and help out?
Platt: The single best way to get ahead of this issue is for all of us to be reporting any instance of this that you see as quickly as you can and as rapidly as you can. The challenge for us, to be quite frank, is that we don’t always see it happening. We’re not on every street every hour of the day, and we need to know about these things quickly. What I think is happening here, which is not uncommon in cities, is you might drive by a block that has some illegal dumping on it and you may just assume that somebody has reported it, and you may see it day after day, after day, and we may not have ever seen it, and it may go a few days or a week or two without being reported and that exacerbates the problem. You just keep seeing this over and over again and it’s just never been reported. We’re asking everyone if you can just report as quickly as you can.
We’re actually working on some, it’s not finalized yet, but we’re working on some additional rules and regulations around vacant properties, about keeping properties clean and that sort of thing, which will help with part of the problem. If property owners and landlords are very aggressively cleaning their properties, the occurrence of that sort of thing will be less frequent just because if you see a lot of garbage on the street, people are at a higher propensity to just throw extra garbage on the street kind of thing. But we’re doing what we can also to try and identify those that are doing illegal dumping and it’s really hard to track it down unless you have cameras all over the place. So I don’t know if there’s a solution to that, but the less locations that are very obvious for illegal dumping will make it less conducive for this activity to occur.
Michelle, resident: I just wanted to ask whether or not looking at adding extra trash bins throughout the city in some of those higher dumping sites where they don’t feel that they need to put it in a yard or in somebody’s alley, where if we have extra trash dumps out there that maybe that could help.
Platt: Yep, that’s a great point. We have had discussions about adding additional drop off locations for both recycling and waste. We will have conversations about adding more waste receptacles on the streets themselves. The challenge is it’s sort of a balance there where if you add a lot of waste receptacles, you need to add more staff to maintain them and then if you’re not maintaining them enough, they they themselves become a sites of not illegal dumping, but you sort of exacerbate the problem by having garbage cans that you’re not servicing quickly enough, being over overrun with garbage in that sense. Yeah, that’s a great point and we’re gonna we’re gonna look into that.
Bushnell: There’s a lot of talk about lifting the two bag limit. Do you see that happening moving forward?
Platt: I don’t think we’re, we’re at that point yet. We’re still evaluating some changes to that service. What we’re gonna probably end up doing is actually trying to identify and work on initiatives to reduce waste heading to landfills and divert some material from those. For example: composting programs, different types of recycling programs, finding ways to just reduce the waste product that we all create in our daily lives. There are some ways to do that. I wouldn’t say we’re saying no to it. I just think that we’re going to try some other initiatives and see if those can stick first.
Shaw: I was certainly gonna chime in on some of the things related to the illegal dumping and in some of the trash questions. The city is looking at putting a host fee on transfer stations that are collecting trash. For example, in the third district, actually not too far from the Northeast, the City has three transfer stations that are within a mile of each other that are just on the east side of the Northeast area. They don’t pay any host fees so it’s very traditional, it’s very common, that facilities like this pay host fees. We expect that if the City were to charge a host fee could generate somewhere in the area of half a million dollars or better in revenue and that half million dollars will go toward clean city initiatives, increasing the number of dumpsters that are available in neighborhoods and things of that sort, and the neighborhood cleanup type aspects.
The other thing is that in the Northeast we worked with [former] Councilman Scott Wagner and we actually have a code enforcement officer and an illegal dumping investigator that is assigned to the Northeast, and their number one objective is to address those issues of whether it’s illegal trash set outs, but most illegal dumping, landlord set outs, those types of issues. I think it’s actually been very fruitful and I really appreciate Councilman Wagner’s approach to this and you know he’s been a champion of this issue, even when he was the Mayor Pro Tem in Council for many years and I appreciate his leadership in helping us get that situated there in the Northeast.
From that perspective, trash remains the number one issue for us and we know the challenges that are in the Northeast related to trash. But we remain committed to improving the quality of services in the Historic Northeast. And so, I would definitely say look forward to the post fees and increased opportunities for neighborhood cleanups, making dumpsters available in the community, and then also look forward to continuing growing that program of an illegal dumping enforcement officer assigned to the Northeast, he doesn’t go anywhere but your boundaries.
Bushnell: Michael, can you speak a little bit about transfer stations and their role. What role do they play in the whole refuse and trash waste stream?
Shaw: We used to have four landfills. Over the last 20 years, our landfill capacity has actually dropped to two landfills, and so capacity becomes an issue. So, transfer stations are beginning to pop up. There’s three of them that are on the east side of the Northeast by the Leeds area, going all the way down to Truman and Independence there. What happens is there’s literally over a half a million tons of trash from across this community going to those locations, and they’re bringing trash from Blue Springs and Independence and the north and south, and they’re bringing it down into the third district, but they’re not paying a dollar toward trying to improve the quality of life in those districts. What we’re saying is that they need to do something to help alleviate the problem of trash in these communities, because they’re bringing in half a million tons of trash into this area. We need some money to help address removing trash from these areas, as well, beautifying these areas. So that’s where the concept basically comes from, and that money would go back into beautifying those communities which are impacted by these transfer stations nearby.
Bushnell: What about the containers and the trash cans that are thrown around by the City guys on the back of the trucks? That’s kind of a citizen expense. Is there anything set aside for additional canisters for people that have their canisters busted by the guys on the trucks?
Shaw: So we’re talking about recycling bins and recycling crews picking up your recycling. Honestly, no, we didn’t do that but that’s certainly something we can discuss. We’re not opposed to having those discussions. Obviously the recycling bins are not meant to last forever, of course, but you’re absolutely correct. We shouldn’t be throwing them and causing damage prematurely.
One of the things that we did with recycling bins is that we actually have the black recycling bins, and the main reasons our recycling bins are black is because it’s 100% PCR, meaning it all comes from recycled material. We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk, so if we’re going to recycle we have to use recycled products. Unfortunately, those recycle bins don’t last as long as what we call virgin bins, so when you see those blue recycling bins they’re made from 100% virgin material, they cost a little bit more but they’re more durable and last longer. We’re having some discussion and dialogue with our supplier to increase the tensile strength of those containers so that they can stand a little more rugged work that happens with that. Beyond that, it’s a constant training situation to tell staff to quit throwing these recycling bins, just being transparent.
Bushnell: Brian, I want to go back to you if we could, and like to talk about the city’s houseless population. I know that you’ve got the warming center down at Bartle and that’s kind of a whole separate issue right now. But are there any additional funds that are being set aside to deal with that and how much of those funds are being set aside to deal with the mental health issues that plague so much of the city’s houseless population?
Platt: We’re working on securing and identifying additional funding sources to provide support to those wraparound services, more than just the warming center itself and the literal roof over people’s heads, which is of course an urgent need. As a side note, that was the reason for opening Bartle Hall as a warming facility was just the volume of people that were needing this literal roof over their head, particularly during the cold weather, and also because of some strains and our existing resources related to COVID-19 social distancing. We had a couple of sites that we were using. They had a certain capacity limit because of the six foot rules, and beyond social distancing, the capacity levels were decreasing significantly to the point where we couldn’t fit everyone.
Just to be frank, it seems like there are a lot more people out there that are finding themselves on the street. That warming center was opened to put the metaphorical fire out. Now that we have the warming center open, we’re using that site to bring in other services and support. We have a portable shower facility that we brought in there, we’re serving two meals a day to everyone there. We’ve had healthcare professionals on site, we’ve had mental health professionals, as well, on site. We’re receiving a ton of donations for clothing and supplies and all that kind of stuff. We’re also receiving financial contributions, donations, from people, from corporations, from other nonprofits, to the site that is helping us bridge those gaps and identify the needs that those people have and solving them.
There are a lot of organizations out there already doing great work in this community, and we’re trying to amplify that work and support that work, and coordinate with them. So, what we end up doing is – we’re funding a lot of these groups already, we’re spending six or seven figures annually, supporting a lot of these groups out there – we’re trying to make sure that we’re being the most efficient with those dollars at this point and bringing people to where they need to go with these existing sources.
Probably the biggest unmet need for us at this point is finding actual permanent housing, transitional housing, or just other types of permanent structures that aren’t just a warming center, to be honest, for this population. Not just the homeless population, but also the population of residents that are very low income. We’re working on some plans we’re going to finalize over the next few weeks to use some surplus city properties and land bank property to try and partner with local developers and other nonprofits to build housing for these people and find ways to get the homeless population into their own homes.
It’s going to be, certainly, a lot of communication and collaboration and probably going to take us a while to go from now to getting everyone at home. But we think this is the right direction to go. This is the one thing that comes up in every single conversation that I have with any service provider to the homeless population in this city and anywhere, to be honest, is that we just need housing, we just need affordable housing for this population, so that’s the key.
We’re not totally sure of what that financial investment is going to be on our end, and also going to be in totality, but you know that will be fleshed out, sort of, as we have these continuing conversations.
Bushnell: What do you do about those houseless people – and I’ve been in a lot of the camps throughout the years just covering news and I run into these people – that don’t go to the shelter because they got beat up or got their stuff stolen, any number of reasons. Or they’re very happy just to come out and say they want to live off the grid, and there’s a reason that they’re living there. So, how do you deal with that? Because you’re not going to get everybody off the streets, you’re still going to have those guys down in the woods that want to live down in the woods.
Platt: Well, our approach is for anyone and everyone who needs help and support, we’re going to provide it. If somebody needs assistance finding a home, if they need additional services, we’re going to have them available. You’re right, we have this massive warming center that we opened and still, you go outside City Hall and there are a couple of people out there in tents. And we’re like, ‘You could probably have a more comfortable night experience just within walking distance,’ and there are reasons why certain people don’t want to go to these facilities. But what we’re doing is we’re listening to the things that they’re saying and we’re trying to address it. We’ve made a lot of improvements and enhancements to security at the warming center, to make sure that all the issues that anyone brings up in this community are nonexistent. I think the highest number we got to is 450 plus people in the Bartle Hall warming center, and spaced out six feet. We’ll be honest, we’ve had issues. I mean, it’s just going to happen when you get that many people who have been living on the streets into a single room. There’s going to be something that happens, but we’re minimizing them. The number of incidents from the beginning until now has gone down significantly and you’re right, there’s always going to be people that don’t want to take that next step and to move into these different types of places, but for those that do want it and those that do need it, we’re going to have it available.
Bushnell: So, with those housing issues, will you work with neighborhood associations along with the Land Bank to address that need, and will neighborhood leadership be involved, as they need to be?
Platt: Sure. My approach to problem solving here, as it was in Jersey City, is to have a collaborative community based approach, and at the end of the day, there’s nothing that I’m going to know more than anyone who lives here. There’s plenty of people out in the city that have been dealing with these challenges, that have been trying to work on solutions that will know the context and the history and the nuance of why certain things will work and won’t work. And of course, having those conversations is going to be the best way forward.
There are also times we just don’t have time to go through the process, with the warming Center at Bartle Hall, for example, we didn’t have time to sort of go through the feedback loops. Literally I was getting calls every night for a week with individuals being essentially locked out of our warming center facilities because we just didn’t have enough space. We had to do something because the weather was getting very cold. We just couldn’t leave anyone out on the street, we couldn’t do it. But we’re learning a lot from this and yeah, of course we’re going to include the community leaders and associations and neighborhood groups in those decisions moving forward. And this is all work in progress, to be honest, as well.
Bushnell: We want to talk a little bit about PIAC funding. Is there consideration of allocating PIAC funding by need, rather than equally by council district? This could help historically neglected neighborhoods, which we’ve got some of over here in Northeast, so could you speak to that?
Platt: Yeah, that’s an interesting idea. We haven’t had those discussions internally, I think though that what might be beneficial for this group, and for other groups, is to just have those conversations about what it is this community needs and other communities need, and it may not be through PIAC, it may be through other sources that we try to find funding for it, or resources for it. It sometimes is the case where you may have a need and you might think PIAC’s a funding source. It might be another funding source that directly relates to that from somewhere else or some grant or some existing service that we could just divert a little bit to. I think, rather than start it by using PIAC for XYZ, let’s think about the XYZ and come to a solution that way.
Bushnell: This question is from one of our viewers tonight. Is there any comprehensive plan for renaming streets parks and dealing with monuments that some deem to be offensive?
Platt: There is legislation in the works related to improving our street renaming and our legislation around naming things. I don’t know where it is in the process, to be honest, but I do know that it’s in progress. Hopefully it’s going to be showing up at some Council Committee or or the parks board or one of those related locations soon. I think once we have a final draft we can certainly have more conversations about it.
Bushnell: Talk a little bit about the pandemic. What is the city’s position on helping small businesses that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic?
Platt: We’re hopeful that we’re sort of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel here with vaccinations coming, and although the vaccination process has been more chaotic and disjointed than we would have liked, and we are less involved than we would have liked, at the end of the day, people are getting vaccinated. Our daily case numbers are going down, and hopefully that we’re getting a little better handle on this. With respect to small businesses, we’ve made some changes to some of our rules and policies to help support them in a balanced way. There were reasons for, justifications for, doing what we did to reduce the number of people and the density of people inside businesses, not just businesses but in workplaces as well. It’s hard to say how much of an impact that we made, but we’re very confident that it was a positive one, that the things we’re doing by wearing masks, by social distancing, by additional cleaning, for example, have no doubt saved lives here and beyond.
But you know now, now we’re looking at trying to balance this and trying to make sure that we’re not, as a result, destroying a crucial part of the local economy here. We’ve deferred fees and charges that businesses pay on an annual basis to make sure that they can continue to operate and that we’re not forcing them to just take their last few pennies and give it to the City for their health permits, or whatever it is. They’ll still be able to get those permits, they just won’t have to pay essentially until the mayor’s emergency orders have been removed. Just last week we just loosened some of the restrictions for restaurants and bars. Now there’s no more curfew. The large gathering restrictions have been loosened as well, and the capacity restrictions have been loosened, as well, provided that social distancing measures and masks have been implemented and also the masks are being worn as much as possible.
So we’re trying to find that balance where we are actually having discussions with as many small businesses and business groups that we can to make sure we’re moving in the right path, and that includes hotels and some of the larger event spaces, as well, to make sure that we’re finding that balance between safety and not just destroying the local economy here. One of the really interesting nuances to some of the rules that have been put in place, even before I got here, were that because of some of the different and less restrictions in neighboring areas, what was happening is we weren’t necessarily keeping things safe here, we were just pushing people to other places. You could go to Overland Park or somewhere in Kansas and have no restrictions, why not just hold your large gathering there instead of trying to deal with the long list of rules.
That was one of the things that we’re trying to work on and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve loosened some things up a little bit just to make sure that we’re not just pushing people into other places to do whatever they want, that we’re trying to be on par with everybody as well. It’s definitely an ongoing conversation, as well, to see what else we can do. We’re anticipating some additional federal relief related to the pandemic, and if and when we’ve received that additional relief, we will first probably just replenish our reserves a little bit, to be honest, that we’ve been dipping into to get us through the pandemic here, but we’re going to try and get those dollars directly in the hands of people that need it. That includes small businesses, that’s grants and other types of support for small businesses. It includes rental assistance, tenant relief. It includes making sure that we can just help people pay all the bills they’ve unable to pay, and anything else that the community needs across Kansas City, to make sure that we’re getting through this and we’re getting back on our feet here.
Bushnell: We’ll talk a little bit about snow removal. It definitely seemed better this time, especially that last little bit that fell. I actually saw plows coming up and down my streets four times. But the equation has been made that, well, you can walk or you can chew gum, but you’ve got to be able to do both. And that chewing gum part is the trash removal. Was that trade off worth it in the end? And then talk a little bit about that new kind of salt that you’re using.
Platt: Just to go through some of the big changes that we made in our snow removal plan. We’re taking a much more proactive and aggressive approach to snow removal. We’re doing more pretreatment of our roads. We’re making sure that our operation is a 24 hour a day operation, and we’re making sure that we’re clearing roads as quickly as we can and we’re clearing as much of the road as we can. For years we just were focusing on disjointed areas of the city and not every single street, and it got to the point where if we weren’t getting ahead of it, we were falling so far behind that we just could never really clear the streets unless Mother Nature just melted the street itself. We really weren’t getting ahead of it so we’ve added about 100 more drivers, we’ve added about 50 more snow removal vehicles, and we’re being smarter with those resources in a more proactive way. Of course there are more improvements that we will need to make, but we’ve taken some very big steps in providing a much higher quality service here.
The new salt product that we just started experimenting with is called Ice Ban. The primary active ingredient is magnesium chloride, and the activation temperatures are much lower than the standard products that we’ve been using and that most cities use. There’s a lot of science behind it, but in general, you know that the colder the temperature, the longer it takes for salt to melt ice, and the more salt you need to melt the same amount of ice. After about 15 or 20 degrees, standard salt just really isn’t effective anymore. So, when you get into those single digits and negative temperatures, it’s just going to take you forever. It is almost impossible with a regular product like that, so when those temperatures got really cold, we started using this new product. The product is much more expensive, but it’s much more effective, especially at the low temperature, so we definitely have some work to do to sort of balance out how we’re going to use it and where we’re going to use it, and when we’re going to use it. But it’s one of the ways that we’re trying to improve the process here.
I’ll comment on the garbage collection as well. Historically, we’re never really doing garbage collection during a snow event anyway, and this is true for cities all over the world. The main reason for that is that you don’t want garbage trucks driving down icy or snow covered streets, it’s just another hazard out there. It’s another big vehicle that has the possibility of causing damage or getting stuck or injuring people on the road, or the people that are driving those trucks. And also, it just makes the operation take so much longer, but we also want to keep our streets as clear as possible when we’re doing snow removal. And a lot of those drivers can help with snow removal. In a certain sense, the faster that you can remove the snow from the road, the faster everyone can return to regular life, and then the faster we can then collect the garbage.
Over the last few weeks, we just had unusually low temperatures and so much accumulation, not a high volume of accumulation but just so many days of accumulation of snow and ice that no matter what you’re doing, it just was going to be hard to keep up with. We never really got more than a day or two behind, for the most part, on garbage collection. We did end up bringing in an outside contractor to assist with the garbage collection and Director Shaw, I don’t know if anything else you want to add about any of that but there’s going to be a balance there. Is it worth it? Yes, because the first priority for us is to make sure that our streets are safe. The last thing we want is to say we’re going to keep garbage collection going and then have ambulances running into garbage trucks and people not being able to get to the hospital, or being able to get food, or being able to get on the streets and do what they need to do. The first priority is clearing the streets and making our streets as safe as possible, and then we can pick up the garbage. When you think about it also, when it’s negative four degrees outside, leaving the garbage out, it’s not like it’s going to start stinking anytime soon. Hopefully it’s all just frozen at that point.
Shaw: I’m just going to echo your sentiment. I’ve been at the trash game for over 20 years in Kansas City and there’s never been an event like this in the 20 years that I’ve been here and doing the trash business. We had 14 days of below 20 below freezing temperatures. Nine of those days were below 15 degrees. We wouldn’t have been very effective getting that picked up, and when we did start picking up the trash, the temperatures were below 15 degrees, why that’s important is that when you’re below 15 degrees, in 15 minutes frostbite sets in. We had to stop the vehicles, let the guys warm up every 15 minutes and so they weren’t as fast or efficient to get the trash up. So it was still a slow process nonetheless. It’s an unprecedented area that we were in, and we are just generally, like the city manager said, about a day behind. We also were in holiday week, so that exacerbated the collection. It was literally the perfect storm. We had a two week event that generated nearly seven inches of snow and ice and below freezing temperatures for 14 days, power outages. We’ve never seen anything like this in Kansas City, and I actually will say hats off to the guys that were actually plowing snow and picking up the trash. They worked 21 days straight, no days off, in freezing temperatures. Yeah, we’ve got to get better at it, though, but that was the worst case, it was the perfect storm. We apologize for the delays, but you always know that we’re going to work hard and we’re going to get it done, no matter what. But, it wasn’t the best showing for us, but at the same time, we had a 30-year event.
Bushnell: I want to throw this open to questions about the budget, and specifically the police budget in a time where you’ve got a homicide rate that continues to escalate. In the budget proposal, it looks like the police department has got about $11 million that’s going to be cut from their budget and that’s at a minimum, causing them to go look for grants on the federal level. Isn’t that counterintuitive? What is your response to that in regards to the citizens saying that?
Platt: That’s a great point and there’s a little bit of a nuance to the police budget there. So one thing to point out about that budget is that we are actually not budgeting any cuts in services or any reductions in staffing through this change in the budget. What we’re doing is essentially right sizing the budget. There were some additional unfilled positions that were left in that budget in case we needed to expand staffing and we’re removing those additional unfilled positions from that budget. Now, when you think about the need for additional police officers, we have about 70 police officers, on average, retire in any given year. Those officers are retiring at top pay, they’re making a lot more than an entry level new recruit, so we could probably hire more than one to one, probably even two or three to one, if and when the need arose from that 70. We could probably hire 100,150 if we really want it to move quickly. There is some flexibility in that budget to not just maintain staffing, but to increase staffing. Also, when you think about the crime rate, we could probably spend the whole meeting talking about this and probably have a whole separate meeting about it, as well, there are a lot of techniques and tools out there to address the crime rate with our existing staffing.
One of the things I’m really proud about in Jersey City is over the years that I was there, we got our murder rate down to a record low, and we did it through a lot of really interesting and unique tools and initiatives that were not just simply adding more police officers. It’s hard to say that there’s a direct correlation between the strict number of officers that you have and the crime rate. There are cities where they have higher rates, a higher number of officers than us, and the crime rates are in different places. It’s more about what you do with those officers and using those resources in the most thoughtful and intelligent ways.
One of the things that we did in Jersey City was a whole community policing initiative. We were putting officers in certain areas and using them in certain ways to target the specific instances and challenges that we were having in the community. We had a housing project that was having a shooting a week, on average. I think there were 300 or so homes in that project, mostly in an apartment building, and we were having a shooting a week. We put a visible 24 hour a day post of two police officers at the entrance of that building. In 18 months we didn’t have a single shooting, we didn’t have a single issue. When you think about the way we’re balancing our resources there, you may be thinking, ‘Okay, well, you took two officers off the street and put them into this location, that’s adding to the force,’ but think about the responses that you would need to each of those shootings. Each of those issues that we had there were sending six or eight, or sometimes 10 or more, officers to respond to some of these shootings, depending upon what comes over the radio, and you’re doing that so frequently that you’re actually using more officers and taking them off of other areas, compared to just the two that we had in that one post.
One of the other interesting community policing techniques we did was we literally took posts, just like that, and we put police cars in areas of high or unwanted activity, turned on the lights of the police car, had the police officers walk up or down the street, just to be ultra visible in certain areas, and we noticed almost overnight that crime in those areas went down dramatically, but also people who live in those areas felt a lot safer because they saw police officers. They were not fearful to walk down the street, they knew that like literally you could see the lights flashing down the street, if you needed somebody they’re right there you don’t have to worry about calling anybody. Maybe you don’t want to live on a street that has police lights flashing all night long, but the alternative, in the beginning, is to live in fear, to not want to go outside at night. So there are things like that that you can do with your existing staffing and officers that actually don’t increase the size of the force, but it also can lead to dramatic reductions.
The other thing, I think the arguably more important thing is the notion that by the time somebody’s calling 911 and there’s an issue or or some kind of crime being committed it’s almost too late at that point there are a lot of things that can be done, proactively to address the violence before it even begins. We’re thinking about making sure that everyone has access to economic opportunity, they have access to jobs, they have access to health care, social services, all the things that allow people to live a positive and independent life. That doesn’t mean they have to resort to all the things that lead to that, like getting involved in selling drugs or other types of violence or that sort of stuff. There’s an opportunity there for us to invest smartly in those types of resources and support, to expand affordable housing options, to provide more social services that will hopefully, and in many ways, reduce crime and eliminate it before it even starts.
Some other cities have had a lot of success with alternate responses to 911 and it’s something that we’re certainly going to try to explore here. Meaning when you call 911, not every single emergency where someone will call 911 warrants a response of uniformed police officers. It may be better suited to have a social worker show up or healthcare worker or some other person to manage that issue. The benefit there is that it’s possible that the help that can be provided by a social worker or healthcare worker is, first of all, probably a lower cost response, you may only send one person and they may be able to also make more progress into solving some of those issues. It also allows police resources to be freed up to respond to the types of emergencies that they’re needed at the most. There are absolutely many types of emergencies that we need police officers, but not every time someone calls 911 warrants police officers show up.
Unfortunately, right now, our only option is to send police officers. So, there are ways to sort of like expand the response staffing without actually expanding the number of police officers that we have. It’s probably not so simple to say the number of police officers is a direct correlation or direct ability for us to address the problem or not. The number of officers, just to give you an example, to my knowledge, hasn’t changed much over the last few years, but the crime rate the murder rate has gone up significantly so it’s not to say that we’ve necessarily lost hundreds of officers and that’s where our crime rate went up. I think it’s also fair to say that just because we may add 500 or 1,000 more officers, that may not also directly impact or directly reduce the crime rate. It’s much more nuanced than that. And it has to do with a lot of other factors related to life and quality of life and that sort of thing.
Baker Hughes: From what you’ve seen in less than 100 days in your new city, what would you identify today as your top three priorities?
Platt: Yeah, that’s a great question. I will say, just as an aside, that Kansas City is a great place to live. The community here is phenomenal to be a part of. I’ve had family here on my wife’s side for, you know, my father-in-law was born and raised here, so I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve always loved visiting. It’s certainly an entirely different experience being an actual part of this community and being so invested in the community… I don’t think that I could just name one priority.
I think that the priorities for me, personally, are different than I would say people who live in different communities. There are things that I like a lot, and there are things that I think are very important to me, but I’m not here saying that these are the things that you should all like the most, or that that are the most important to you, and also that’s different across communities, as well. This is not meant to be a way to dodge the question, but when you think about issues that people who live where I live in the third district face, they are vastly different than people who live downtown and vastly different than people who live north of the river, and I go to these community meetings and I talk to people, and they may have certain needs in their top three. The top threes are different everywhere so for me to pick three, I think, is tough, but I will say this: in general, my focus is to be – still, it’s been 80 days, but hopefully it’s going to be many more than 80 days that I’m here – my focus is to listen to people, to be the conduit and the facilitator of solving these problems across the city. That’s probably my biggest priority at this point is to listen to people, to learn all the challenges, to find the best path forward to solving a lot of these challenges.
I think, if I was going to name some things that are top of my list, the budget is probably the top item in the list for me as far as something that I’m working on, and it’s still top of the list, even though we’ve introduced it and hopefully the council’s going to pass something in a few weeks here. It’s top of the list because this is not something that you just submit as a document and it’s done. As I mentioned before, there are 30 or 40 initiatives that we’re working on to close this budget gap, and those are not all done either there are things that are going to continue to take work and iterating and development, as well. Building a supportive and collaborative and inclusive culture within the City is a very important priority of mine, as well, to make sure that all of our employees feel welcomed and supported and celebrated and thankful and thanked, literally, thanked that they’re being part of this organization. I think the other thing for me that’s important is just improving operations across the City. It’s a very broad focus, but it means different things in different places. It could be the things we did with snow removal, finding ways to take our existing resources and provide a better service, it could be adding new services. It could be identifying gaps in our services and hiring more staff. There’s a lot of challenges and layers to that issue, as well. So yeah, I guess that’s my three.
Baker-Hughes: And those are three great priorities, Brian. Thank you very much for allowing us to be one of your priorities this evening, and we look forward to talking to you well after your 100 days.