Jackson County legislators on Monday unanimously voted to block the appointment of a director of the county’s main anti-drug and anti-violence program, saying County Executive Frank White Jr. needs to use a more inclusive process.
White sharply disputed that.
“I’ve worked hard to be open. I’ve worked to be transparent,” he told legislators.
Then he added a note of frustration.
“I get sick and tired of hearing it,” he said. “I get sick and tired of being a punching bag for everyone with an agenda.”
But legislators, as well as County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, said White’s administration dropped plans to involve several elected officials in choosing the director for Combat. That program – the Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax – is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax voters have approved several times. The tax raises $22 million a year for a wide variety of efforts, from the Drug Tax Force to paying for prosecutors who put criminals in prison.
Combat Director Stacey Daniels-Young retired last month. Last Wednesday, White’s office announced the appointment of Teesha Miller to the position. She has been with the county since February, coming on board to develop the county’s new prescription drug monitoring program, which is largely to address the abuse of opioids.
County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker on Monday told legislators, “I find that process troubling, so that’s why I am here to address this body.”
She said neither she nor Sheriff Mike Sharp nor the nine legislators were involved in selecting Miller.
“There was agreement that this should be an open process. I don’t know that happened after that, but the meeting was canceled,” Baker said. Several legislators echoed her comments: A meeting to review candidates was set, then rescheduled, then dropped.
White told legislators that the County Charter gives him the power to appoint the director and said “I took the extra step” by creating an open process. He said that process had gotten bogged down and that a public meeting would have been open to the press and others.
“And I felt it was wrong to put our finalists through that,” he said. “Some of our finalists didn’t want to be on TV.”
He said Combat is important to the entire county. He said there are drug problems in all parts of the county and that all areas, not just some, need resources.
“This shouldn’t be a political football,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a special-interest situation.”
But legislators pointed out that they, along with the prosecutor and sheriff, also are elected officials.
“We’re elected officials also, and I don’t feel like we’ve been treated with respect,” said Legislator Theresa Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit.
Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence, stressed that it was Baker who worked hard last fall for Combat’s renewal by the voters.
“And to exclude her on this is just wrong,” he said.
Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, stressed that she has a good deal of respect for Miller and said she’s a good candidate for the job, “but I am pained by the process.”
Williams stressed that Combat relies on the public’s trust.
“It is the public’s fund,” she said.
What happens next isn’t entirely clear. White can name someone to the position, though Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, said the process needs to involve the other elected officials. After the meeting, White’s office issued a statement saying Miller was “blatantly dismissed” without legislators hearing from her or her peers.
“I took this job to do what’s right, not bend to the same political pressure that has become the norm for Jackson County,” his statement said. “Based on today’s vote, we will review our options, but we will not allow this to deter us. We will continue to move forward to make this community safer.”
Legislators also got a look at the possible costs of renovation or replacing the Jackson County Detention Center – and possible ways to pay for it.
A wide range of jail problems has come to light in the last two years, including high staff turnover, inmate and staff safety, and even whether there are enough corrections officers on the floor to adequately control the inmates. The jail dates to the 1980s, and a consultant earlier this month recommended building a new, more cost-efficient facility.
Jack Holland, managing director of the Ameritas Investment Corp. in Kansas City, laid out several financial scenarios:
• A new $180 million jail, paid for over 30 years. With general obligation bonds – needing voter approval – that annual debt service would be an estimated $9.72 million a year at 3.29 percent interest. Special-obligation bonds, not needing voter approval but needing an identified revenue source, come in at $9.94 million a year at 3.47 percent.
The difference in interest is because the county has slightly different credit ratings for general and special-interest bonds.
“Both reflect the strong credit quality of Jackson County,” Holland said.
• A $30 million renovation, paid for over 20 years, at $2.02 million or $2.05 million a year, depending on which type of bond.
• A $50 million renovation – $3.37 million or $3.41 million a year for 20 years.
• A $70 million renovation – $3.78 million or $3.86 million a year for 30 years.
• A $100 million project – $5.4 million or $5.52 million a year for 30 years.
Holland pointed out that Jackson County, unlike many other local governments in the area, does not collect a use tax, in effect a sales tax on out-of-state purchases. Jackson County would stand to collect about $14.5 million a year. It would need voter approval, a simple majority.
General obligation bonds, on the other hand, require approval from a four-sevenths majority of voters or, during a special election, a two-thirds majority.