By Leilani Haywood
The three candidates for Lee’s Summit mayor didn’t have any answers for the city’s budget crisis at the Mayoral Candidate Forum sponsored by the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce on February 28 at the Missouri Innovation Campus. Bill Baird, Rob Binney and Ron Williams agree that raising taxes isn’t the answer, but they differ on how to address the shortfall for raising city workers’ salaries. Lee’s Summit voters will elect a mayor on April 3rd.
Lee’s Summit Mayor Pro Tem Rob Binney said the city council had a plan and budgeted $2 million to raise salaries. “Somewhere in the middle that wasn’t enough and now we’re sitting here at this junction to pay more salaries,” said Binney. “We have good benefits and compensation, but the workforce is changing. We had an agreement on a number and moved forward with that and it blew up.” He added that the city has regained its AAA credit rating after being hit with a lawsuit in 2011. The healthy reserve fund balance is a key part of the city regaining its excellent credit rating. Binney is finishing up his first term as a city council member.
Baird, a former member of the Lee’s Summit School Board, said that according to city policy, the reserve fund balance minimum should be 16.67% of the city budget. “Our general fund balance is almost double that and we need to be accurate with the city manager on where that number really is and what’s important to determine a healthy reserve. A long-term solution is to budget incremental increases for all city staff, not just for fire and police. I’m not endorsing a sales tax until I get into office. If the reserve fund balance is at 40%, we shouldn’t ask taxpayers for more money.”
Former two-term Lee’s Summit city council member Williams said that his personal belief is, “that we need to grow our way out of this. I’m not a big proponent of a sales tax or taking money out of the reserves. The answer is not easy or clear but they (city staff) need a raise. Growth is the way to get it done. I’m prepared to deal with it and it will not be a fun decision either way.” Williams served as District 2 City council member from 2000 to 2008. While serving on the City Council, Williams served as Mayor Pro Tem, chaired the Public Works, and chaired the Community Development committees. In prior years he chaired the Tax Increment Finance Commission.
The forum included questions submitted by chamber members and the audience and candidates had two minutes to answer. When asked what’s the city’s biggest challenge and opportunity, the candidates agreed that more people need to get involved in the community. Baird replied that getting city council members to work together and build consensus was the biggest challenge. “We have the greatest community with so much passion and diversity that I know from first hand. We have to start asking citizens to be engaged. I plan to push and promote to bring more people to the table from business people, to (those involved with) the cultural arts to our amazing educators.”
Binney agreed with Baird that more people need to get involved. “The biggest opportunity is our biggest challenge. Our revenue streams are changing. We have a city that’s hit almost 100,000 in population with residents turning over 60-years-old every day. Our challenge is we need to continue to make stuff available to the over 55 crowd.” Williams added that he believed the city tax base will rise if the city is engaged and supports growth.
The Parkland, FL school shooting on Feb. 14, 2018 that killed 17 students and school staff is also on resident’s minds as they wanted to know what they would do about school safety if elected. Baird said he was “pretty fired up about public safety for our kids. My kids go to Lee’s Summit High School that has an open space and the teachers and principal are on point. I’m not for guns in school. I was a teacher and that’s not the solution.”
Baird added that he grew up in a small town and if someone started acting strange, the police would go that person’s house. “The police would ask, ‘why are you waving a gun around?’ It’s hard to do this in town of 95,000 but you’ve got to work at creating that culture.”
Binney said making sure funding was secure for school resource officers and DARE officers was a priority. “We need to make sure they have the funding they need because they are funded by outside sources.” Beyond funding, Binney added that city officials needed to make sure the ecosystem existed for students to go to school safely such as good roads.
Williams said parents, grandparents, and school personnel should take the lead on addressing school safety. “All we can do is provide leadership that we’re aware of it,” he said. “My kids are grown and I don’t have the fear of them being terrorized. But we need to provide the support for how they secure their assets for safety of their kids. I’m not going to tell anyone how to do it.”