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Examiner
  • Another cost to the cross-state job game

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  • The other day, I got a chance to catch up with state Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs.
    She said a large economic development bill addressing data centers, tax credits to encourage “angel” investors to back startups and the St. Louis “freight forward” proposal is coming along.
    “There’s really a lot of movement on economic development,” said Lauer, vice chair of the House Economic Development Committee.
    She also outlined another aspect of the standoff between Missouri and Kansas over using tax dollars to lure companies and jobs back and forth. For Missouri, this struggle might be more costly than some realize.
    In recent weeks, much has been made of Hall Foundation information that put a steep price on those incentives. In a nutshell, if you look at each state’s main incentive program and look at three counties – Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte – more than 6,000 jobs have moved across the state line in recent years at a cost to taxpayers, in both states, of $212 million.
    Kansas is ahead by a net of 465 jobs, but on the whole it’s paid $301,000 for each of those jobs, which is at least better than paying millions and still losing, as Missouri has.
    But there’s another cost. If Company A moves from Blue Springs to Lenexa, maybe its would employees move, too. “And that’s not happening,” Lauer said, meaning the Missouri community is left to bear the costs of roads, school and other services with a reduced tax base.
    There is a movement to call it off. The Missouri Senate has a bill to end such tax incentives within the metro area, but only if Kansas goes along, which is unclear.
    “On the Missouri side, we’ll probably make it happen,” Lauer said.
    Home prices up
    It’s become a seller’s market for homes, right? The latest data from the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors and the Heartland Multiple Listing Service reinforce that view, with just a 4.1-month supply of homes on the market in January in nine metro counties. That compares with 4.9 months in January 2013. Generally a supply of five or six months is considered balanced, favoring neither buyers nor sellers.
    So prices should be up, and they are – nowhere more strikingly than in Jackson County. In January 2013, the average existing-home sale price was $98,219. Last month, it was $128,326 – jump of 30.6 percent. The metrowide figure was an increase of 16 percent, and Jackson County still falls below the average metro price, $156,833. Platte and Johnson counties are strongly pulling those numbers north.
    New-home prices metrowide were actually down 2 percent, to $356,248. In Jackson County, that figure was $304,154, having barely budged from $302,869 a year ago.
    Taken for a ride?
    Let’s start with the good news. The train ride on Monday was great. The kids had fun, they saw their state Capitol, and they probably learned a few things.
    Page 2 of 3 - Getting to Monday was the hard part. Here’s a story of lousy customer service involving Amtrak, the passenger train service that’s supposed to function like a subsidized private company.
    I was organizing a day trip to Jefferson City for local Scouts and parents. After some Googling, I found an email address for group sales at Amtrak. It’s not readily found at amtrak.com, which might have been a clue. I sent a note with the date, arrival and departure times and even train numbers, and I asked several questions. I’m not ordering tickets yet; I’m just asking questions.
    Sorry, came back Amtrak. We cannot handle this by email. You have to call.
    I called. Let’s start an account, the person in California said. Wait, I said, I’m still pinning down exact numbers and I really just want information today. That’s OK, she said, just give me a good estimate and you can drop a couple of people if need be. All right, I said, let’s go with 22.
    The normal discount is 10 percent, she said, and then she input all of the particulars and apologized for the computer’s slowness.
    While the computer processes, let’s do some math. It’s $46 for an adult to ride from Independence to Jefferson City and back, and it’s half of that, $23, for a child under 15 accompanied by an adult. So while the computer churned and the person in California apologized a couple more times, I did the math. Eleven adults and 11 kids should be $621.
    The computer finished its tallying. Sir, she said, that comes to $772.20.
    Come again? That’s not less than the posted price, I said, it’s actually slightly more. It turns out – and this is the part that took a second phone by me to clarify – not all Amtrak seats are created equal. It prices seats like the airlines do. The person sitting next to you might have paid half of what you did – or double. Amtrak calls the $46 price for the round trip to Jefferson City its “value” rate – and sometimes it’s higher than $46 – and then there’s a “flexible” rate of $104. So for this group sale, Amtrak allocated a certain number of “value” and “flexible” seats and discounted from there.
    Wait a minute, I said. Why don’t I just drive down to Union Station – Amtrak doesn’t sell tickets in Independence, which is a whole different beef – and just buy 22 seats? Well, Amtrak said, they won’t sell you that many at the value rate, plus there’s no discount, so you won’t save money.
    Funny, but it doesn’t feel like I’m saving money now.
    The number in the group ended up at 20, not 22, and I went to Union Station to get the tickets. That’s $772.20, he said. No wait, I wait, it’s just 20 people, and California said dropping a couple would be fine. Here’s my official Amtrak roster, all filled out.
    Page 3 of 3 - Sorry, the computer won’t let me change it. So I’m paying for 22 and hoping to get a refund for two? A rebate we both know will take an act of Congress? Sorry, but there’s been some miscommunication. The computer won’t let me change it.
    So I left.
    I called California back and began the conversation with the words, “I’d like to speak with a supervisor.” I didn’t get one, but it seemed to help. Sorry, sir, we should have told you to fax your roster so we can do the math on this end. That, I said, would have been good to know.
    OK, she says, 20 people comes to exactly $702. That’s what I get, too, I said. I think we’re getting somewhere.
    Back to Union Station. That’ll be $702. Thank you, I said.
    The trains ran on time, the kids loved – first train ride for many – and Amtrak made money off sales of coffee, Coke and souvenirs.
    What’s the upshot? Instead of getting a discount, our group paid a slight premium – less than a dollar a ticket – for the convenience of writing one check and not having to have all those parents make their own arrangements. I think what upset me most was the comment from California, during the second call, that I was just “going off a price on the Internet.” Yes, the posted price on Amtrak’s website, where it tells the world that it’s $46. This is, at the very least, less than transparent.
    Talk to Amtrak riders, and you hear the same thing: Their service is great, but their service is terrible, which is to say once you’re on the train the folks there are friendly, helpful and accommodating, as a rule. The trains run on time, as a rule. But the act of buying tickets in this case involved one mail, one fax, three phone calls, two drives to Union Station – and an exasperating customer experience that dragged over several days. At the ticket window, having an unempowered staffer who can basically only tell you what he can’t do is not productive.
    Bottom line: The customer standing there with a checkbook trying to give you hundreds of dollars is the key part of this equation. Don’t make this hard.
    Jeff Fox is The Examiner’ s business reporter and editor. Reach him at jeff.fox@examiner.net or 816-350-6313. Follow on Twitter @FoxEJC or @Jeff_Fox.
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