2013 State of the County

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders delivers the 2013 State of the County address.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders delivers the 2013 State of the County address.

Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for coming here today. Thanks for coming out on what I know is a busy Friday for so many people.

I want to start out by thanking a few of my friends that are here with us today. How about starting out thanking the boss, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill. Thank you so much for being here today. I don't know why she hired me in 1994, but she did, and she still remains the best boss I ever had in my life.

Additionally, a great friend, a great colleague, Attorney General Chris Koster, one of the great public servants that we have in this state -- someone of whom we expect amazing things. Thank you, Chris, for being with us today. 
And I going to start with Jackson County and Kansas City's own Jason Kander, our great Secretary of State who is doing an amazing job. Thank you for coming and being with us here today.

And truly one of the nice men in politics -- and, of course, everyone is nice in politics, right? -- our great Treasurer Clint Zweifel. Clint, thank you so much for coming here today. 

Thanks to Jim [Hetter]. Thanks Roshann [Parris], who did a wonderful introduction. Thanks so much for your graciousness and having us here today in the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. 

Also, thanks to my family, my mother-in-law; my father-in-law; my father Bruce; my mother, Linda; as well as probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me -- she gets prettier every year -- my wonderful, wonderful wife, Georgia. Thank you very much. Thanks for marrying me.

So the reality is, as we settle here today in this room, we gather to remember our past accomplishments as a community and city, and to renew our commitment as we look to a new and brighter future for Jackson County.  

As we stand here today, we are confronted, in so many ways, with two dramatically different and competing viewpoints regarding the way we ought to and need to move forward as a nation.

Now with the passing of Ike Skelton, I think it is important to pause and remember no one -- no one -- was more concerned about nation's future than the late Congressman, one of our community's and nation's great public servants, Ike Skelton. His unmatched devotion to our country, to our community and service to its people can shine a light on the times in which we live as well as the problems that we face.

During what has become a very poignant and dramatic farewell address on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Skelton expressed what he called at that time his anxiety about our country's future and direction, when he said to the nation, "In the past, this body has worked best after great debates, when men and women of strong principles have met and compromised on those difficult issues, which at the time could render us asunder. But through meeting in the center and solving the problems of the day, our country benefitted. It was able to progress."

Those who wish to deconstruct our government and choose to be a hindrance to the democratic process are in so many ways, as Ike said, missing what is the bigger picture, which requires that each of us compromise and embrace collaboration as a means to solving our nation's problems and achieving progress

History can lift our spirits, however, as we remember those who have led this nation during equally contentious times and chose to join the American people in a mutual dedication to what we believe is the common good.

  In January of 1941, no president has faced a great circumstance than President Franklin Roosevelt when he delivered his third inaugural address. At that time, as we all know, our nation was also in the grip of a devastating economic collapse.  
In the face of a very stark and uncertain future, President Roosevelt made the case for hope and for progress when in that speech he said, "Democracy is not dying….We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life….for it is the most humane, the most advanced and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society." 

Roosevelt knew then what all of us in this room know today. Our democracy can only function and our society can only progress and advance if all of us, regardless of ideology, regardless of station, regardless of circumstance, choose to come together to defend our freedom and create equal economic opportunity for all of us. 

Nearly seven years ago, I stood before you as your new County Executive and I said that we should expect nothing less than excellence from ourselves, from each other, and from our Jackson County government. 

That is what the citizens of Jackson County deserved then, it is what they deserve now, and it is what they should and can expect from all of us in the future. 

Since that very, very cold -- those who were there remember -- a very cold January evening in 2007, we've worked to reform our county government by making the fundamental choice to be different as an organization. 

We have done this by staying true to our core principles and our core values.

These include:

• Committing ourselves to open and transparent government in new ways.

• Committing ourselves to fiscal discipline.

• And facing our challenges by working together without making excuses.

Now, together, let me share with you where our county government has been, where we are now, and where we believe we must go in the future.

Our most basic responsibility now is providing our citizens an assurance that their tax dollars are being spent wisely, efficiently and prudently.

Since 2007, we've faced some of the biggest financial challenges our county has ever seen -- really seen since the Great Depression. And we’ve done so in the open. We've done it transparently. We don’t shun the light of transparency in Jackson County government. We welcome it. 

The public always knows how much we spend, why we spend it, and what progress we are making. 

And so now, let me report to you some of the great progress we have made, together working with our Legislature, regarding the county's finances. 

First, upon all of us taking office, we were met with substantial budgetary disarray, resulting in serious shortfalls -- the inability to even make payroll the week we took office. 

We adopted the motto, therefore, in the county of doing more with less -- and making sure we did more with less. We chose innovation and efficiency rather than higher taxes to answer the problems that faced us that day and continue to face us in the future. Instead of asking for more and asking the community for more, we simply went about the hard work of doing more. And because of the decisions we made in 2007 and beyond, I can proudly state that our county tax levy -- the levy for our citizens in this community -- is now over 1 percent lower today than the day we took office in 2007.

We have redesigned our financial processes as well. County contracts are all now competitively bid, a novel concept new to the county. This important reform was made permanent after the citizens overwhelmingly approved a revised County Charter in August of 2010.

Furthermore, we have established a 3 percent voluntary contingency reserve fund to make sure each of our major funds will solvent and viable for the future of Jackson County. 

Also, we are proud to announce that this year, as we did last year, we once again received for the county the highest possible standard in accounting on our independent annual audit. So, congratulations to the Finance Department.

Finally, our Double-A bond rating remains one of the strongest and highest in the State of Missouri, and, once again, this year, we will have a balanced budget without a tax increase for our citizens.

Despite this progress, however, we are in the midst of what is for all of us a new reality. We continue to live in what we all know are uncertain economic times and because of unprecedented gridlock in Jefferson City and our nation's capital, we can no longer count on the financial support we have obviously received in the past.

However, as we have always done, we will respond to this new reality, these new challenges by seeking meaningful reforms, rather than making excuses for inaction, and in doing so, we will continue our commitment to the basic and necessary services that our citizens continue to need and rely upon every day.

This permanent redesign of the county's finances has put us in the position to strategically reinvest in the infrastructure of our county. Our most significant example recently, as we showed in the video, was returning the Historic Truman Courthouse, first opened in 1933, to the citizens of Jackson County.

Many of us have read the Truman biography. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCollough, who wrote one of truly great presidential biographies in American history, had this say to about the history that has occurred within the shadow of that very courthouse so many of us have been to: "I can't think of another piece of landscape of similar size where so many things have happened that have been of significance in the story of America." 
The westward expansion of our nation began here, the Civil War was fought here, and the remarkable legacy of one of our nation's greatest presidents and leaders began and ended here.

But just a few years ago, the only question that remained about the Historic Truman Courthouse was how much longer would this building continue to stand as the foundation deteriorated year after year. Decades of neglect had rendered that building in the condition that it was in.

In 2009, we were told that we might lose portions of this building forever, due, once again, to decades of neglect. Our administration immediately declared the building a public emergency in order to save the building by repairing its very foundation. 

After those emergency repairs were complete, we then laid out a detailed long-range plan to fully restore the building to once again be the working courthouse the public wanted it to be. The goal was not only to return the courthouse to its original design, but also to open it once again to the citizens of Jackson County as a working courthouse.

We also made a commitment to undertake this project so that it would be done without asking the taxpayers, whether state, federal or local, for any additional dollars. So, beginning in 2010, we at the county with our legislature began setting aside, every year in the county budgets, dollars so that this $5.6 million project could move forward. We were also able to provide men and women who work in our community in the building trades industry an opportunity to get back to work in difficult economic times.

Today, we can take great pride in the fact that the Truman Courthouse has been reopened and is once again a working courthouse on our historic square. It was reopened without any additional taxpayer expense, and just as Truman did in 1933 -- 80 years ago this September -- it was reopened on time and on budget, a promise that we made to the taxpayers and a promise that we as a government kept.

Now our focus turns to another courthouse in Jackson County, which is also in desperate need of repairs and redesign. The Jackson County Courthouse Annex, which is just a couple of blocks away from the Historic Truman Courthouse, is vital to our criminal justice system within this community. However, this building has not been renovated since 1972 and is outdated and, as the judges will tell, is operationally obsolete -- and has been so for over a decade.

Because of the population growth and boom we continue to see in eastern Jackson County, they're simply aren't enough courtrooms for our judges to hear the cases necessary to keep the public safe. Our citizen's basic right of access to the courts in a timely fashion is too often blocked and too often in jeopardy.

Consequently, our administration is working with Presiding Judge Roldan of the 16th Judicial Circuit and his staff to redesign, renovate and modernize this building for the next generation by building four new courtrooms and modernizing the jury room in order to meet the needs of our 21st Century criminal justice system.

Now, as public officials, we must embrace the responsibility of making sure that all of our citizens, no matter where they live, feel safe in our community.

When it comes to fighting the unacceptable levels of violent crime in any community, certainly in our community, there are no easy answers, and law enforcement cannot be asked to solve them alone. However, progress, by working together, is possible through innovation, a commitment to working together, and listening to the specific needs and preferences of our citizens.

Jackson County's COMBAT, Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax, has always enjoyed strong support because of its innovative approach to drug treatment, prevention and crime fighting. 

But the citizens of our community also know that drug abuse and violent crime, as we so often see, go simply hand in hand. So, when COMBAT was renewed by county voters overwhelmingly in 2009, they also voted overwhelmingly to expand its mission to include a focus on anti-violence for the first time. 
This past February, we took an important step towards this new expected and much needed emphasis by joining with our friends, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and Sheriff Mike Sharp and local police throughout this region, in launching a new and unified effort with our citizens to stand up to the criminals who prey upon our neighborhoods.

The "Don't Look the Other Way" campaign encouraged citizens to call the COMBAT hotline when they see or hear about crime occurring wherever it may occur. 

Throughout the summer, we walked together, we went door to door together, we asked our friends, we asked our neighbors to step up and speak up to take back our community. This program, through Mike and Jean's leadership, has yielded extremely positive results.

The COMBAT hotline has received four times the number of calls since April of this year than it did in all of 2012. Those phone calls have led directly to eight arrests and 32 new cases are now under investigation. Thank you for your leadership.

The work of reforming our county government is never complete. 

President Truman understood this concept. He believed finding solutions when problems arise is an absolutely essential and crucial part of the democratic process. He once noted that "no goal is perfect. One of the chief virtues of democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and, therefore, corrected."

Every two years, as required by Missouri State Law, Jackson County assesses the value of real estate property in our community. Assessment is a core function of county government and one that we demand be done right.

Upon taking office in 2007, we reviewed our county's assessment procedures to see and assure our citizens were being treated fairly and equitably in this process. We formed, collectively with the legislature, a bipartisan Assessment Review Commission, tasked with evaluating our appraisal procedures, as well as looking for new strategies, with an emphasis on protecting families and seniors, so they would not be forced from their homes because of higher property tax bills.

We all remember in 2007, 2008 the national crisis we saw. 

This commission recommended three significant reforms all of which were adopted. 

• Establishing a standardized process for assessing values.

• Providing additional opportunities for our citizens to appeal their property values.

• And establishing a new installment payment plan, such as our Senior Quad Payment Plan, which gives senior citizens the option of paying their property tax bill in four installments, without penalty, rather than all at once.

But the challenges provided by each and this year's reassessment cycle show us that there is always more work to be done and we can always do it better.

The employees, the men and women of our Assessment Department deserve our recognition for their efforts. They worked days, they worked nights, they worked weekends and holidays to accomplish the goals that were set before them.  

My gratitude also goes to our County Legislature. Each of you met with and listened to our citizens to assure that each of our citizens received the service they deserved and required. Thank you for your leadership.

This process provides for us another opportunity for permanent reform. 

Given the substantial and unfortunately continuing funding reductions that we see annually from the State of Missouri, we must find a 21st Century solution to a process which has become increasingly archaic and unworkable. 

In order to accomplish this, we with the legislature, have charged our Assessment Department with finding new ways to integrate technology and other innovative strategies into the appraisal procedures, so that citizens can continue to have the very reasonable expectation of a fair and equitable assessment. 

But the dream of owning a home is too often beyond the reach of many of our citizens.

Now, as we know, there are rare moments when someone's life can be immediately touched and changed for the better. 

I want to talk you just briefly about Jackson County’s Constructing Futures program and how it provides some people and many people in our community that opportunity.  
This unique initiative, the brainchild of Calvin Williford, brings government, non-profits and private businesses together to focus on three perpetual problems that any community has.

• One, repairing vacant or abandoned homes that have become havens for criminal activity.

• Two, providing job training to previously incarcerated individuals who need new skills to turn their lives around and be productive members of our society.

• And, three, providing a newly rehabilitated family home to what was a homeless family.

As you saw in the video, Barbara Nelson and her two young daughters, were the first to benefit from this unique program. The Nelsons are an example of honest, hard-working, dedicated citizens who do things the right way, but simply need a little bit of a hand up. 

Since then, two other families, the Smiths and the Scotts, have
also been given that hand up.

And we are proud to say that the work on each of these houses was completed by people who were previously incarcerated and are now product members of Jackson County. 

Through collaboration with the non-profit organizations, organizations like Connections to Success, 22 people have received critical life and job-training skills, so they are given a chance to become responsible, law-abiding citizens of Jackson County.

Today, I can report to you for the first time, that two more homes, as we sit here today, are currently under construction, and by the end of this year, two more families who are currently homeless will have a place to call their own as we work to change their lives.

When government acts as an honorable enterprise, it not only invests in infrastructure or sound finances. Its most important investment can be in people. 

Nowhere is this more true than in our criminal justice system.

Each year, more and more of our young people find their way into the criminal justice system. Many are guilty of what is seriously irresponsible, but ultimately correctable behavior. Experts in the field tell us that exposing young people to the criminal justice system can many times sadly do more harm than it does good. 

This past April, the Jackson County Family Court, the nationally recognized Family Court, launched a program geared to those who have simply broken the law, but have not made crime or illegal activity a permanent life choice.

A new Juvenile Diversion Program is available to our youth in Jackson County, specifically for first-time offenders who have committed low-level non-violent crimes. This program focuses on working with both the child and their family to set specific goals to solve on-going problems, connect them with a what is a supportive community, and ultimately make sure that this child lives up to their responsibilities and to their commitments.

So far, this new program has had 159 young people enter the program and be given opportunity to make a positive change in their lives. By focusing on treatment rather than incarceration for these first-time offenders, the staff at the Family Court is working to steer many of our youth away from formal prosecution.

To Presiding Judge Roldan, Administrative Judge Del Muro and the rest of the 16th Judicial Circuit, thank you so much for your leadership and bringing to us what is a wonderful project. Thank you so very much.

And, last certainly not least, I want to end by discussing what is probably one of the biggest challenges facing our community here today -- a challenge that will not only determine the kind of community we live in as we sit here today, but the kind of community we hand over to the next generation.

From the first transcontinental railroad as they drove that spike in Ogden, Utah, to President Eisenhower's visionary interstate system, the progress of our country, its transportation system, our economy and our society have been linked and continue to go hand in hand. 

That was also true when Harry Truman, while serving as Presiding Judge of Jackson County during the height of what was at that time the Great Depression, embarked upon and oversaw the development of a 300-mile county urban roads system, which permanently linked urban and suburban parts of Jackson County and Kansas City. Eight years, 80 years ago, it was built, and today we still drove those routes.

I challenge anyone who got here today without driving on the roads that were designed and thought through by Harry Truman in 1933. 

It's that kind of generational investment we should look to.

In fact, if what to talk about what homer Harry Truman was when it comes to Jackson County, here it comes. Truman once boasted that in Jackson County "there is as fine scenery as lies outdoors and the land is as rich as the valley of the Nile." OK, the Nile delta and Jackson County. But that was Harry Truman. One of our own, right?

As you know, over the past five years, I and so many have spoken often about the need for our metropolitan area to develop a new and enhanced mass transportation system that connects us through an integrated network of trails, of buses, of trains. 

While roads and bridges will always be important, always be necessary crucial to any community, and necessary investments, we must also focus on the transportation needs of the next generation because there is a growing paradigm shift we have to recognize in the way our citizens want to live and the way the younger generation wants to move. 

With the tidal wave of social networking, people now have a choice between virtual contact and actual contact. This millennial generation feels more empowered than ever by their iPhones than by their cars. Think of this statistic: Less than half people under 17 nationwide are even seeking a driver's license. 

Our future leaders, our future entrepreneurs, our future citizens want to live in a vibrant and progressive community where driving a car is a choice, not an absolute necessity.

However, this challenge is not simply about our future.

We also know that one of the major reasons right now for stubbornly high unemployment in our community is the lack of access to jobs through mass transit.

According to the Brookings Institute, Kansas City ranks 94th out of 100 cities in the country in terms of connecting our citizens to their jobs through public transit. Less than 20 percent of our residents have the ability to get to and from work in less than 90 minutes using public transit.

This is simply unacceptable for a major metropolitan area. 

Frankly, it also puts us at a competitive disadvantage in the new global 21st Century economy. For us to progress as a community, it simply is imperative that all of our citizens, regardless of circumstance, regardless of location, are able to travel freely and safely throughout our community easily. 

One of the things that should encourage us is that, by its nature, transportation is not a partisan issue.

In 1983, President Reagan signed a bill that increased the Federal gasoline tax and pumped literally hundreds of millions of dollars into the nation's infrastructure and the nation's mass transit systems all throughout the United States. Upon signing the bill, Reagan said, "The state of our transportation system affects our commerce, our economy and our future." Ronald Reagan.

For every dollar a community invests in public transit, they receive four dollars back in economic returns. That's a national average. Cities like Portland, cities like Dallas and like St. Louis highlight the economic potential that comes with wise investments in mass transit. Since 1997, the City of Portland has seen over 3 billion in private dollars invested along their tracks. 

In Dallas, there has been more than $4 billion in private investments and development along their passenger rail lines. 

Now, in rebuttal to the skeptics who say somehow Kansas City would be different, we see growing interest and increase in values along the tracks that are just now beginning to be planned just north of where we sit here today. We are beginning to see the same type of economic potential realized right here at home, with significant development already actively being planned along the streetcar system in downtown Kansas City.

In order to move Jackson County and our community forward in the future, in order to compete in the new global economy, and quite simply for the common good, we must join together in the cause of modernizing our public transportation system and, frankly, continuing to move the ball forward.

These generational investments never move as fast as we all want them to move. This has led many skeptics to falsely state that a new and modern transportation system in our community can, therefore, simply never happen. However, they underestimate our community's resolve because there is great value in our collective journey and our journey together.

As we have said before, our community is not committed to getting transit done fast, we are committed to getting transit done right. 

Over the past three years, we have worked cooperatively and collaboratively with our partners throughout the entire community to overcome geographic and political challenges.  

Our unprecedented dialogue includes:

• Working with the Mid-America Regional Council, the City of Kansas City as well as the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority to carefully study the future transportation possibilities in our region. 

• Building strong relationships with the mayors and the city councils all throughout Jackson County, many of whom are with us here in this room today, so that they are and continue to be active partners and participants in this process, not merely witnesses.

• Collaborating with Kansas City officials, including great Mayor Sly James, so that a regional transit system is used to connect with the downtown streetcar system, which is now currently underway. Both projects work when they work together.

• And most importantly by engaging with the public, many of whom are represented here in this room today, to listen to what they need, to what they demand from a vibrant public transportation system.

Our progress and our promise would not be possible without the leadership and vision of our county mayors. Gentleman, thank you so much for your leadership. Mayor Rhoads, Mayor Dennis, Mayor Bower, Mayor Mallinson... Thank you so much for your leadership, gentleman. Thank you for everything you've done for all of us.

However, I think many of know, there will always be more obstacles, there will always be more skeptics, and there will always be plenty of tough decisions ahead.

But I ask you to join all of us here today in continuing our commitment to working towards the day when we are able to connect throughout all of Jackson, connect all of our citizens to their families, their friends, their neighbors, their jobs, realizing that our only enemy in this endeavor is our inaction. 

We will not settle until our vision of a connected, thriving, vibrant, progressive community is complete.

And so, today, we renew our promise to leaving a stronger Jackson County for the next generation. 

Few people in our history have had as transcendent an effect on the American story as President John F. Kennedy. A week from today sadly marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas.

Just a few short months before his death in what was very poignant speech, President Kennedy gave what many people believe may have been one of his finest, most eloquent speeches -- in what was a string of eloquent speeches. In his remarkable commencement address at American University, he laid out his strongest case for achieving peace in the world by strengthening the common bonds which tie all of us together when he said, "And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

And so, as we leave here today, I ask you to join me in remembering President Kennedy's words as a guide to help us face what will be our future challenges together with confidence, with optimism and, most importantly, with hope. 

So, finally, let us ask God for the grace we need to serve our citizens with honor, with dignity and with justice.
Truman Courthouse Rededication
The completion of the Truman Courthouse renovations was one of the county's biggest achievements in 2013. The historic landmark reopened as a "working courthouse" in September.