When we took office nearly five years ago, we spoke of a journey that we would take and that we would begin together. We would use our collective energy and vision to raise the bar of expectations for your county government. The goals we laid out were simple and they were straightforward.
It was a time to set a new standard, both ethically and financially for your government. It was time to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouded and clouded the operations of county government for, frankly, generations.
But, additionally, it was time to limit the County Executive and Legislative power and commit to an increase in public oversight and transparency.
We were not just planning for the next year or the next election. We were beginning to plan for the next generation. This journey was about the challenge of a new beginning.
Now I decided, as we thought about how to begin my speech here today, to discuss a great American leader – a great American leader who unfortunately passed untimely but who inspired countless millions of people, not just locally but all over the globe. Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, possessed a global vision that met many challenges that confront us as humans. With a brilliant mind and an uncompromising set of values, his vision and his passion connected with everyday people and connected them with the power, the transformative power of new technology in the 21st Century.
He empowered ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And he did this simply by making them believe what they could do and what they could be was extraordinary. In his remarkable commencement address to Stanford in 2005, he revealed his definition of success for anyone when he said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.”
And, so ladies and gentlemen, I can say to you today that since 2007, in honor of the words of Steve Jobs, we have not “settled” in Jackson County government. And we will not settle in the future.
We believe today and have always believed that working for the citizens of Jackson County is great work. It’s our goal that everyone living here benefit from a professional, ethical and efficient county government.
However, that job can not be done alone. I want to thank the people of Jackson County. All of you have helped us raise the bar of expectations for your government. A new standard has been set, and a new standard has been met. The people of Jackson County can once again be proud of the government that occupies your courthouse.
The reforms we have made have laid a foundation for successful county government. But we must continue to raise the bar and get better and better, as Mr. Jobs said, as the years roll on.
To borrow from the Greek philosopher Aristotle – every now and then you have to pull that out as a philosophy major – he said, “Excellence is not a gift from the gods. It’s a human trait and the thread that runs through every form of excellence is this: Above all else, excellence requires that we submit ourselves to a high standard of performance and strive to achieve it.”
So, let me begin by describing the progress we have made in adhering to the high standards that Aristotle laid before use several thousands of years ago.
Since the day I took the oath of office – since we took the oath of office – my administration has made a commitment to acting in the best interest of the public. We have acted to protect our citizens’ inherent right to know what their government was doing, why they were doing it and how they were doing it.
Included in this protection is each citizen’s right – basic right – to know how the government is spending their money. In the past, County Executives were given the unilateral power to award no bid contracts whenever and however they saw fit. Over the years, literally millions of dollars walked out of the courthouse doors without a shred of legal or legislative oversight.
Immediately upon taking office, our administration made it a priority to reign in the business of no bid contracts from the County Executive’s Office. In 2010, with the support of many of the people in this room, the voters of Jackson County approved permanent reforms to our County Charter. A new process has now been initiated which ensures competition and the best quality of service at the best price for all of our county citizens.
This past April we were also given another historical opportunity to redesign and reform our government by doing things in a new way. Then County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar was named to the 16th Judicial Circuit bench, leaving, therefore, an opening for one of the premier legal positions in the entire Midwest. Now given the importance of this legal position, we created a substantially new process.
We immediately named a six-person nominating committee of well-respected people from throughout our community. A public hearing was, for the first time, held so that we could find out what citizens wanted to see from their next prosecutor. Because we took an interest in the citizens of this community and what they wanted, the people took an interest in their government and this process.
For the first time ever, candidate interviews for this premier position were held in open, in transparency and in the public. These interviews were also videotaped and placed on our county website, so that Jackson County citizens anywhere and anyone else could see what those interviews were like and what had occurred.
Through this thorough and open process, we appointed the best candidate. And that is Jean Peters Baker who is currently serving in that office.
Jean Peters Baker was sworn in as Jackson County Prosecutor on May 6, 2011.
Moving forward, it is important, it is imperative that we always look for new ways to modernize the structure of county government. That is why, next year, we will finalize and we will formalize professional service contracts for the key administrative staff within the county and the County Executive’s Office, a step never before taken in Jackson County.
These contracts will clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the CAO, Chief Administrative Officer, and the COO, Chief Operating Officer, within the Executive Branch. This important and necessary step will protect both the employees and the integrity of our government and system. Through the reconstruction of how our county government functions, we are forming a path of success that our administration and administrations in the future will continue to follow.
As all of us know in this room, our nation is currently facing an enormous economic challenge. However, this problem isn’t unique on a national stage or the Federal Government.
After taking office on January 1, 2007, my administration was faced with what we could only call budgetary chaos. We quickly discovered that the county was in financial freefall. Our budget was upside down, with revenues falling well short of expenses. Additionally, meager bookkeeping that has existed for decades made it nearly impossible to determine the county’s liabilities, let alone its assets. To simply keep the doors of the county courthouse open, we had to take the dramatic action within 30 days of immediately slashing over $2 million from our county budget. This dark period in our history was followed by the most challenging economic times, as we have seen, in several generations.
In the last five years, the county’s general fund has been cut by almost 20 percent. Additionally, that reduction was done with a backdrop of an extremely volatile national economy and unpredictable sales tax revenues. However, our county government – as we’ve said time and time – saw this economic volatility not as an excuse but rather as an opportunity. It was time to look at new ways, creative ways for generating revenues in ways that would not hurt the taxpayers of this county who were experiencing their own financial crisis.
So, I want to share with you quickly just some examples of our new commitment to be more financially efficient – and to the hard work and dedication of the employees of this great county.
In 2009, Jackson County partnered with the City of Kansas City on what is now called the Regional Correctional Center. What this has brought is improved efficiency to our criminal justice system. In its first two years of operation, this system has saved the taxpayers of this community over $5 million.
The Regional Correctional Center is located right next to the Jackson County Detention Center. The County Corrections Department operates both facilities.
Additionally, these savings have also allowed for an improvement in transitional services for the inmates of our facilities. Services like the Bridges Program, which provide our inmates with much needed stability after they have served their sentences, by assisting them in finding steady work, a steady job and a place to live. It is important that we do all that we can to rehabilitate these individuals so they make the choice to become responsible, law-abiding members of our community and not repeat offenders. Through innovation and collaboration with our regional partners, we were able to provide better services while at the same time saving the taxpayers of this community millions of dollars.
Second, in 2007, I think as we all know, the county lacked sufficient funds to even make our payroll for the calendar year. To not repeat the mistakes of the past that lead to that, the county has, for the first time ever, established a well-funded contingency reserve – even in the teeth of this economy and downturn in revenues.
As a result of our responsible budgeting efforts, Jackson County is now one of only four counties in the State of Missouri with a “Double A” bond rating.
Additionally, in August, we released the results of our annual audit. For the second consecutive year, Jackson County received the highest opinion – the highest auditing opinion – that can be given to any organization in America, whether public or private. So, congratulations to the financial staff.
Once again, in 2012, the county’s budget will be balanced. The proposed budget puts our county on solid financial footing both now and with an eye to the future.
We have done more and been more responsible with our citizens’ tax dollars. We have not and will not increase taxes, or cut vital services that our citizens crucially depend on. That is a promise that has been made, and that is a promise we have kept.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Legislature, I want to thank you for your partnership, thank you for your leadership, thank you for your vision during these unprecedented times in what has become and been difficult work. I look forward to continuing to work with all of you as partners as we craft a better future for the citizens we are honored to serve every day.
And while we will continue to be vigilant in terms of our spending, we will not ignore the need to enhance and improve our county infrastructure.
A little history…
In 1934, during the midst of our country’s Great Depression, then Jackson County Presiding Judge Harry Truman built the county courthouse in downtown Kansas City – that courthouse we still use to this very day. Truman did not shy away from the investments needed for his community. We will follow his example by making our own generational investments.
Historic Truman Courthouse
For example, we have refused to neglect the needs of our Historic Truman Courthouse. In 2009, emergency renovations were completed to save the foundation of this national historic landmark. However, as we know, there is more work that needs to be done. Next year, we will work toward renovating the interior of that historic structure, so future generations will be able to experience the rich tradition and history of our past.
Our courthouses are not just buildings. They are investments – generational investments. The county courthouse annex in Independence was last renovated in 1972. Since then, the population of eastern Jackson County has absolutely exploded. The shift in population has led to overcrowded court dockets for our judges and unnecessary burdens for our citizens seeking to access our justice system.
While less than one-third of our Circuit Judges work in Independence, they are responsible for hearing now more than half of the cases for the population of Jackson County. This includes nearly half of the county’s domestic and criminal trials. Additional courtrooms are needed so our citizens are given their basic right to access to courts in a timely fashion. To quote Gladstone’s aphorism, justice delayed is justice denied.
So, next year, we will move forward as a county in addressing these long-term needs. These are not band-aid fixes. These are generational investments that not only affect those of us here in this room today, but our children and grandchildren as well. They will benefit from these investments as we did from Mr. Truman’s investments.
Given the fragile state of our economy, we all know people who are out of work – in our families, among our friends. It is more important than ever that we make these investments, more important that we invest in these projects so we can put our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, back to work.
While we commit to investing in our county’s infrastructure, we will also make a commitment to our most important asset, the men and women who serve Jackson County every day. Their commitment to public service has helped to redefine what Jackson County government represents and the county government you have come to know.
That is why, for the second year in a row, we are announcing a proposal for a 3 percent pay raise merit pool for all county employees. This is important. As we keep building toward our future and building toward a better county government, we want to be sure we can provide for the best and the brightest of the employees who serve our citizens.
So, let’s talk about some the improvements we have made and what to do with regard to public safety.
As public officials, we have an incredible responsibility to never just stick with the status quo. Our citizens deserve a government that is energetic as well as innovative.
A little over a year ago, I sat down with COMBAT Deputy Director Vince Ortega to discuss the unacceptable levels of violent crime we saw permeating throughout our entire community and throughout Jackson County. As we know, crime fighting is difficult work that often takes imagination and cooperation and regional effort.
In that light, Vince proposed a regional approach to catching and prosecuting some of the most dangerous criminals in our community. This idea would need the support of our entire county government as well as law enforcement officials and agencies all throughout Jackson County. As we know, crime and criminals don’t stop at municipal boundaries. In fact, they rely upon them; they prey upon them. This effort would be a territorial reconstruction that would not allow criminals the luxury of finding a safe haven through jurisdictional boundaries.
After hearing the idea, it was pretty simple on my part. I said, “Vince, go do it.” And that’s what he did.
With decades of experience in law enforcement, Vince built a network of regional collaboration between all branches of the criminal justice system. And since this January, the “COMBAT High Risk Offender Collaborative” has targeted 14 of this region’s most violent, most dangerous criminals in Jackson County.
Today, because of this program, I am proud to announce that through his work, through those regional efforts, over 50 percent of those criminals have been taken off the street and into custody. So, Vince I want to thank you for your imagination and hard work on this issue. But I also want to mention Sheriff Mike Sharp. I also want to mention Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and Presiding Judge Charles Atwell as well as the other members of law enforcement who are here today. Thank you for your cooperation and your efforts every day.
Additionally, I want to thank the police chiefs from throughout Jackson County, many of whom are in attendance here today. Thank you for coming.
Because we have chosen to work together, we have made our community a safer and better place.
I would like to describe another key effort the county is going to make in the new year with regard to public safety.
All of us are, unfortunately, too aware of what can happen to our first responders if they are unable to communicate in what are, quietly frankly, often life and death situations.
The current county radio system that we rely upon and that they rely upon every day as they put their lives on the line was constructed in the 1960s. Let that sink in. Think about how far technology has advanced since the 1960s.
Since then, I don’t think it’s a shock to say that system has become obsolete and, frankly, dangerous to the first responders we have. The radio system that we have, to the extent that it works, is only moderately effective in about half of the 660 square miles that they have to patrol every day to keep us safe.
Deputies on duty are unable to communicate with the Missouri Highway Patrol and various police departments, including Kansas City, Lee’s Summit and Independence. This inability to communicate has put our Sheriff’s Deputies in harm’s way almost every day in what are life and death situations.
Updating their radio equipment is essential to improving the safety of Jackson County deputies as they perform duties.
Just last night – and I wanted to be sure to mention this – I was talking with Sheriff Sharp about a recent car stop that occurred. Let this one sink in.
It was just roughly about a year ago that a sheriff’s deputy on 24 Highway was trying to apprehend to two felons at QuikTrip on 24 Highway. As he was trying to apprehend those two felons on 24 Highway, he realized that he couldn’t communicate for back-up. As a deputy, he’s got one set of handcuffs. One set of handcuffs goes on one felon. If there’s another felon there… one deputy with one gun two felons.
He tried using his radio system, but he couldn’t call for back-up. What he had to do… Think about this as a first responder, you are alone in the middle of the night, eyeing two felons. He had to call on a pay phone to call 9-1-1 to call the operator and get the operator to provide him back-up. Fortunately, that officer is still safe.
That alone call tell you have risky this service has been and why we need this investment.
So, we have known that a new communications system is absolutely necessary. We also realized the costs for such a system were just prohibitively high. Original estimates for the updated radio system were upwards of higher than $27 million for that investment. We didn’t’ take that has an excuse. What we did is what we’ve done on a number of items. We used our innovative and collaborative spirit within the county.
Jackson County will take a regional approach to solving what is a life-and-death problem.
Next year, through a partnership with the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Kansas City and Independence Police Departments, Jackson County will fully upgrade communication equipment for our Sheriff’s Deputies, law enforcement agencies, Corrections Officers and Park Rangers at a cost of only $6 million or less than 25 percent of the original estimate. This state of the art equipment will fix the fatal flaws in our current system that have hampered us for too long and allow our personnel to easily communicate with all other law enforcement agencies throughout the county.
I want to make sure we share another quick success story – a success story that is pretty near and dear to my heart and many people’s hearts in this room. In creating a better future for our county, we have to have an eye on our obligations to and connections to the past.
Trails are at the center of Jackson County’s history in many ways that are not always self-evident. Over 185 years ago, as pioneers found their way here in hopes of a more prosperous life not only for themselves but also for their children, our county was a key meeting point for literally thousands of people who were making their journey westward along the Santa Fe, the Oregon and the California Trails.
What is known to us today as the Little Blue Trace Trail became the first major route for settlers, connecting people all the way from Sibley to town of Raytown, now the city of Raytown and beyond.
Just as our citizens did in the 19th century, we seek opportunities to develop our county into one vibrant and energetic, integrated and connected community. By expanding our trails system, we are reconnecting with our historic pathways of the past.
This past summer, Jackson County, working with the City of Independence, completed a three-and-a-half mile extension of the Little Blue Trace Trail. Now spanning over nearly 15 miles, the Little Blue Trace is the spine of what will become a county-wide trails system that has the ability to connect with regional trails and municipalities all throughout our metropolitan area.
A 3.5-mile extension of the Little Blue Trace trail opened on June 3, 2011.
In 2012, a historic partnership with Kansas City and Jackson County will help us extend the Little Blue Trace another mile and then ultimately further beyond. This extension will connect the citizens of Independence and Kansas City just as the Little Blue connected the founders of Jackson County’s earliest cities.
Trails offer the chance for a healthier and fitter community. They provide fresh, open spaces and offer a redesign on how we live and we work together.
Trails can also serve a greater purpose. In the Hartman Heritage Center along the Little Blue Trace, you will find a recruiting office for the Army, Navy, and Marines. On a weekly basis, our local soldiers use the Little Blue Trace Trail as a training resource for physical training.
And finally ladies and gentlemen, we have a decision to make. We have a decision to make as a community. As I said in January, it is time for a new direction in how we live, work and move as a region. In order to create a tomorrow that is better than today, we must fulfill the transportation needs of the next generation.
Just as we have with trails, this region has a rich history with public transportation. In the 1950s and 1960s, as many of us are aware, people moved through this community by taking advantage of a then world-class transportation system that resided right here in the Greater Kansas City area. I am committed to bringing those advantages back to Jackson County and all of our citizens through the construction of a new, modern and efficient public transit system.
Unfortunately, mass transit is an issue that has fractured our community, literally for decades. In May, the Brookings Institute released a report on how well the top 100 communities of our nation worked, how their citizens were connected to jobs through public transportation. Sadly, Kansas City ranked in the bottom 10 of that matrix. This, for our community, is simply unacceptable.
Public transportation in St. Louis – and we’ve all seen what has occurred there – came up with a slogan a few years ago, which said, “Some of us ride. All of us need it.” It was simple, but it was also true. So, let’s think about it. Many of the people we depend on everyday depend on public transportation. It could be the cashier at your grocery store, the nurse at a local hospital who’s taking caring of your child this night or the secretary at a small business.
Regional mass transit has the ability to transform our community in much the same way as the Federal Highway System did in the 1950s and 1960s. To achieve this goal, Jackson County has built an historic collaboration throughout our entire metropolitan community over the past two years.
From Senators and Congressmen to Mayors and Chambers of Commerce all throughout our community, there is a united front committed to not doing business as usual. The 5,000-plus citizens we have spoken to on this issue share this commitment as well.
In the last year, Jackson County and our regional partners have won over $2 million in competitive federal grants to study regional transit, outcompeting larger communities with their own already established, more advanced, more effective mass transit systems.
To further our commitment, Jackson County has worked with our partners at the Regional Transit Alliance and now the Regional Rail Coalition, some members of whom are here with us. This group, consisting of citizens, civic leaders, community groups and elected officials, is taking on the task of educating and informing the public about the need to move transit forward in our community.
They understand that regional mass transit is essential if our community is going to compete in the 21st Century global economy. The next generation will not only be competing against Chicago, Boston, Indianapolis, and Seattle, but we need to provide them generationally the tools to compete with Paris, Shanghai, Dubai and London. We must embrace this new global paradigm. We have no choice.
So it is a simple question: What do we want to do, what can we do for the next generation? Do we want to sit and waste a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our region? Or, do we want to leave a better world, a better Kansas City for our children and grandchildren?
And, so, today represents another chance for another new beginning for our community. We have re-imagined how our government operates. We have redesigned our financial commitment. We have recommitted to serving the people’s interest, rather than the politicians. Now I ask you to join us in our next journey together in building a new regional transit system.
The satisfying, even great work of building our future together will fill a large parts of our lives. We should not fear the future, but rather take pleasure in achieving our goals together in making a better city. In Jackson County, we will never settle for second best. And like any great county, we will be better and better as the years roll on.
Even though we know that the road ahead will be rough and the hills will often be steep, let’s together ask for God’s grace as we continue to serve the great citizens of this community and to serve them with honor, dignity and justice.
Those attending the State of the County Address included local mayors, law enforcement officials, County Legislators, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and other elected officials.