Freedom Inc. has had a fair amount of influence in elections in Kansas City’s mostly black urban core neighborhoods for decades.
But the political club’s three-year, personal and public battle with Mayor Sly James — who told me during his 2015 re-election that he didn’t even seek Freedom’s endorsement — is hurting the very people it’s supposed to serve.
The group has opposed programs that would provide public infrastructure upgrades, economic development and more vibrancy for East Side neighborhoods.
Cases in point:
Mayor James is the biggest supporter of the bonds. (I also recommend “YES” votes on all three questions.)
The group’s criticism is misguided. A decent chunk of the road, bridge and sidewalk funds will be spent to repair older infrastructure in the central city. A portion of flood control dollars also will flow there. The animal shelter will be built in Swope Park.
The costs of paying for the bonds are greatly exaggerated and included in misleading fashion in Freedom’s flier. The property tax example says it would cost “you” an average of $8 a year — escalating to $160 a year in two decades.
Actually, that example uses city-supplied figures for the owner of a $140,000 house and $15,000 worth of cars.
But most houses in Freedom Inc. wards are not worth nearly that much. The median listing prices are in the $30,000 range in many neighborhoods. The average property tax increase could be less than $2 a year for those homeowners, going up to less than $40 a year in two decades.
The cost-benefit ratio for those neighborhoods would be highly in favor of the people who live in the neighborhoods Freedom Inc. purports to represent.
Freedom spokeswoman Gayle Holliday told The Star that the group could have supported part of the bond issue, but they saw “so much poverty, hunger and homelessness in the inner city, that the other things aren’t a priority for us.”
That’s silly. The bond program will create jobs in some inner-city neighborhoods, as well as the infrastructure upgrades. And most of the tax revenue for the bond package will be paid by residents in more affluent parts of Kansas City, especially the Northland and the southwest corridor.
— Freedom Inc. bitterly and successfully opposed a 2014 election needed to build a streetcar link along Linwood Boulevard on the East Side and on Independence Avenue in the Northeast, plus expand the Main Street route through midtown.
Under that 2014 plan, sales taxes and property tax assessments would have gone up within a transportation development district near the streetcar routes. By far the biggest sources of extra revenue would have come from the midtown area.
James was a huge supporter of the extension. However, Freedom’s opposition helped sink the project in many black-majority precincts, though it was approved in midtown.
Of course, that’s now where the city and others are properly hoping the current streetcar line will expand. Backers hope to spur redevelopment in that corridor while extending the successful downtown line that began operating in May 2016.
Just think if the 2014 vote had been successful, and planning were underway right now for laying miles of tracks through urban core neighborhoods. Residents on the East Side would be looking forward to more economic development — such as residential housing and new retail — in long-ignored parts of Kansas City.
Alas, Freedom didn’t want James to have that kind of victory. Instead, the 2014 election included a racially offensive ad from Freedom.
A mailer featured a picture of a sad-looking African-American child with the caption “Jim Crow must go!”
A year later I interviewed James, who was still fuming about the ad. He said it had represented a “total abuse” of history.
“Basically, Freedom was accusing James of being a Jim Crow supporter — even as he championed a project that would have brought an infusion of public funds and private reinvestment into the urban core.”
Freedom was wrong on the streetcar expansion in 2014. It’s wrong on the $800 million bond issue in 2017. (The group does favor a small sales tax increase on April 4 for ill-defined development in a small slice of the East Side; I oppose that tax and James has not spoken positively about it.)
The political club’s vendetta against James has hurt parts of the black community and common-sense efforts to build a stronger inner city.