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In Hot Water

As Kay Barnes soaks up the glory, the city's finances head down the drain.

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Kay Barnes soaked under a thick blanket of luxurious bubbles in the spa at her Briarcliff home. Her delicate feet were propped up on the end of the tub, while Julio, her personal nail technician, sanded them gently with a lavender-scented pumice stone. Barnes had picked out a new color of polish, a deep but vivid power-red called A-Rose at Dawn ... Broke by Noon.

She sighed deeply and settled into the water. Enjoying the pressure of Julio's strong hands on her arches, she contemplated her reign. With just one year left, she was riding into her administration's twilight on perhaps the highest horse yet. Jackson County voters had just enthusiastically approved a sales tax to rehab the stadiums. Barnes took it as another ringing endorsement of her sporty agenda, which was — she nearly guffawed out loud — to let the commoners pay for everything. Now she wouldn't have to bother with those pesky downtown ballpark promoters, either. Personally she would have loved a ballpark to go with her downtown arena, but who can argue with David Glass? Cranky old fart, she thought as she raised a crystal flute of icy cold Cuvee Dom Perignon '95. At least she'd come through the election unscathed — it was, after all, a county issue, and she was pleased to have avoided getting her own hands dirty.

In the past seven years, she had single-handedly rebuilt the Kansas City skyline. And now that the stadium election was over, the race for her successor was beginning in earnest. With the thought that Stan Glazer had formally announced his candidacy earlier in the week, she nearly spit out a spray of the precious, $100-a-bottle bubbly. "No New Arena," my sweet fanny! she cackled regally to herself. Katheryn Shields had all but declared she was in. Nearly half of the City Council was running. That morning, The Kansas City Star had run pictures of all the contenders. None of them come close to moi, she thought, leaning back onto a soft bathtub pillow.

Julio interrupted her reverie.

"I read in the paper this morning about how the city auditor says we are in financial trouble," he said in the rich, cocoanutty accent that Barnes found so soothing.

It wasn't unusual for Julio to bring up city business during these intimate pedicures. He was a nail boy, but he was smart and kept up on local issues. (Barnes was always impressed by this, but Julio knew it was just good business to be able to discuss matters of importance to his clients.) Barnes secretly considered him to be an informal adviser, a barometer of what people on the street really thought about things. Contrary to what some people might think, she really did care. But she was supremely annoyed by Julio's reference to auditor Mark Funkhouser.

"He's such a grump," she scoffed.

Julio looked up from her heels and arched an eyebrow at her. She hated Julio's arched eyebrow. Whenever she saw it, she knew Julio was right.

That morning, the paper had reported that back in November, Funkhouser gathered 28 bigwigs from local businesses, colleges, government agencies and god knows where else. Funkhouser wanted to assess how George W. Bush's disastrous fiscal policies — OK, Funkhouser's audit didn't put it quite that way, but that's what it amounted to — might hurt individual cities. Barnes was irked because he hadn't invited her, but that wasn't the half of it. She'd read the resulting 50-page report that Funkhouser released on April 19.

"Kansas City needs to follow basic management principles and responsible budgeting practices," Funkhouser brazenly wrote. The auditor's report insisted that the city needed to develop long-term financial plans, get debt under control and communicate clearly with the public.

How dare he!

Funkhouser had written lots of other things, too, but she didn't want to think about them. The auditor had been harping for months about the city's debt load, most of it brought on by tax-break giveaways to the developers of her very own legacy of projects.

Julio had, that morning, checked out City Hall's Web site and read Funkhouser's report. It made Julio scared for the future of the city. He understood that Funkhouser wasn't some crazy alarmist, always doom and gloom. He knew someone had to do something.

Julio carefully ran his brush across the mayor's big toe, covering it with the brilliant A-Rose at Dawn ... Broke by Noon lacquer. "You know," he said softly, "you've done so much as mayor. You could finish the year with a bold new action that would make all of your other accomplishments look like pfff." He waved his hand as if to cast away the Sprint Center arena, the Kansas City Live! Entertainment District, H&R Block's new downtown headquarters and hundreds of new luxury condos.

"I'm listening," the mayor said.

"It wouldn't be sexy," Julio shrugged.

"Go on."

"You could turn off the tax breaks."

There. He'd said it. Julio held his breath, anticipating a kick in the face from the mayor's other wet foot, the one he wasn't holding. But curiously, she had yet to react.

She was thinking. Maybe Julio was right. Maybe Funkhouser was right. She wasn't stupid. The city's boom had cost money — mostly the commoners' money. You gotta spend it to make it, she'd figured, and eventually, months or years after she'd left office, when all of her projects were up and running, pumping revenue into City Hall's general fund, the people would raise their glasses of cheap beer in eternal gratitude to her for making Kansas City cool again. But, aw, who was she kidding? Certainly not Funkhouser. Certainly not Julio. She'd given away so many tax breaks that the city might never make up for them, no matter how live her entertainment district might be someday. In fact, when it came to financial responsibility, her reign hadn't been so different from George W. Bush's.

Barnes shivered in her now-lukewarm water. Julio patted down her feet with a plush white towel. She threw back her champagne flute to gulp down the last of it.

Outside, the city lights blinked innocently. She knew it wasn't too late. She just didn't know if she had the guts.

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