news feature
April 6, 2007

 

 

 

Jackson County de-emphasizes environmental programs to bolster communications office
by Tom Bogdon

Governmental budgets, of course, pose a question of priorities.

Former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields emphasized environmental programs during her three terms in office. Some observers of county government say that Shields’ successor, Mike Sanders, former Jackson County prosecutor, has de-emphasized environmental programs and placed greater emphasis on internal and external communications and public relations.

An examination of the 2006 and 2007 county budgets (Sanders took office in January) as well as interviews with individuals inside and outside county government indicate that the elimination of $570,000 in spending on environmental programs has been roughly offset by creation of a new Communications Office.

The Communications Office, which had no funding under Shields, has the following Mission Statement: “Communicate a consistent image and crystal clear message to our Jackson County citizenry through the management of all public relations, media relations, advertising, marketing and general communications for Jackson County Government. Equally as important is a strong commitment to communicating a consistent message internally throughout all Jackson County’s Departments and their employees.”

The budget priorities of the Sanders administration will be tested, to some extent, in hearings before the county’s Merit System Commission for two former Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department employees who headed up the county’s environmental programs during the Shields administration.

Larry Falkin, deputy director of natural resources for the Parks and Recreation Department, and Chris Bussen, resource conservation coordinator in the natural resources office, were terminated from their jobs less than a month after Sanders took office as county executive. Neither Falkin nor Bussen were political appointees and both have merit system protection. The reason given for their layoffs was budgetary considerations, even though spending in the Parks and Recreation Department and county government overall increased.

Falkin’s hearing is currently set for May 18, and Bussen’s hearing is set for July 27, although neither is happy that their cases are being strung out for months after their terminations.

Asked for the specific reasons Falkin and Bussen were fired, Calvin Williford, the county’s director of intergovernmental relations and chief of information, said he could not discuss it because the reason was a personnel matter.

Williford also said: “No environmental program has been cut in Jackson County. We have made staff reductions but no program or service has been cut. Those duties have been reassigned to other departments. A department was created comprising Larry and Chris. All those functions were going on for years without layers of managers. What we did was integrate them back into the departments.”

Chris Bussen responded: “The taxpayers expect more than misinformation and false statements from a representative of the third largest county in the six-state area.

“Anybody who manages programs knows when you cut a half million dollars from environmental programs, there’s no way they can continue to operate,” Bussen continued. “You can parade 50 PR spinmeisters in front of me and the fact is a half million dollars is a half million dollars. You used to have two environmental staffers and now you have zero.

“The other thing is I don’t even know why we’re talking to a PR officer,” Bussen said. “I want to know what the elected officials are saying about the elimination of the environmental programs. What does Mike Sanders say? We elected people to represent us. The taxpayers deserve an answer as to why these award-winning programs were eliminated.”

Bussen said that Jackson County was recognized as “second in the nation out of 1,700 cities and counties” in environmental activities last year. “This year,” he added, “We didn’t even file a report to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) that was due last Saturday (March 31).”

Bussen also takes issues with Williford’s contention that his Falkin’s layoffs were a “personnel matter” that could not be discussed.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard that from Jackson County. They originally said it was a budgetary layoff, and if he’s trying to make it sound like there were disciplinary issues, then he’s got a slander lawsuit on his hands because my record is spotless.”

Bussen added that in January, he received confirmation of his promotion to a higher grade level, and then “the next to the last day of January I was notified that I was out of a job.”

Bussen also wants to know where members of the Jackson County Legislature stand on the elimination of environmental programs.

“The taxpayers deserve an opinion from the elected legislators on these issues,” he said. “More than 85 percent of our citizens have said environmental programs are important, and yet Jackson County eliminates them, despite what Calvin Williford says. They can have county employees go on an Earth Day Walk, but the fact of the matter is employees are calling me at home to ask how to run programs.

“They can play the spin game all they want, but the fact of the matter is that Jackson County’s environmental programs are dead,” Bussen asserted.

Calls made by eKC online to a few contractors who managed environmental programs for Jackson County confirm that several contracts were slashed, although one was reinstated three weeks later after an article in The Independence Examiner and a brief editorial in The Kansas City Star.

Kevin Anderson, vice president of Missouri Organic Recycling, said his company’s contract to haul away and compost waste food from the Jackson County Jail was terminated in January.

“The same day that Chris and Larry were laid off, Jackson County called me and had me stop the collections. I was told it was budget cuts. Then three weeks later they called me to resume pickups. That was after the editorial in The Star, and Chris’ response on The Star’s Buzz Blog. I heard there was also a story in The Examiner.

“We charge less per ton than the waste-hauler does because we compost the waste food with yard waste along with other materials from Whole Food Market, the Hallmark Cards Crown Room, Cargill, Del Monte and Sara Lee. We save our customers money and produce an excellent compost,” Anderson explained.

Another environmental contractor for Jackson County has been Bridging the Gap, an area nonprofit that handled trash recycling programs in eastern Jackson County and coordinated the Keep Kansas City Beautiful program, which worked for litter abatement. Laura Klover, Bridging the Gap program director, said the Jackson County programs totaling about $150,000 per year were terminated, at least temporarily.

“We’re in active conversations with Jackson County and hope that we can resume working together in a significant way that’s comfortable, and I believe that’s possible,” Klover said.

Another eliminated program was a county contract with Johnson Controls for the management of services to nine county buildings in Kansas City and Independence. The contract guaranteed county taxpayers a savings of $450,000 each year by making improvements and monitoring HVAC systems. In addition to saving almost a half-million dollars per year, the Johnson Controls contract reduced energy consumption by 40 percent and eliminated 58,000,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses from being released into the air.

Jackson County paid Johnson Controls $180,000 per year for its services. The contract was in the fifth year of a 15-year span when the Sanders administration cancelled the contract. Under the contract, if the $450,000 cost saving goal was not met, the company was obligated to cut a check to the county for the shortfall. A company spokeswoman confirmed that the contract was cancelled, but declined further comment.

Another contract that has not been renewed was with Abitibi Recycling, which recycles paper products. Jackson County and the company cooperated in a program for area schools and churches called Beat the Chiefs. Under this program, the Kansas City Chiefs challenged 700 schools and churches to beat the team’s record of recycling 6,000 pounds of paper after fall football games.

“The success of our Beat the Chiefs paper recycling challenge really hinged on our relationship with Jackson County, particularly Chris Bussen, who planned it,” said Donna Utter, area manager for Abitibi. “He had a relationship with the Chiefs and he opened the door to make the competition possible for all the schools to participate and recycle more paper.”

Utter said that about 250 of the 700 schools and churches were able to match the three tons of paper retrieved by the Chiefs, and that each successful school received a football and an invitation to a special event at Arrowhead Stadium to meet Chiefs players. In 2006, 1,401 tons of paper was recycled as a result of the program.

As county environmental programs supposedly came under the budgetary knife, a county Communications Office was created.

Heading up the Communications Office is Ken Evans, who was Katheryn Shields’ spokesman before he defected during Sanders’ campaign for county executive to replace Williford as spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. When he was replaced by Evans in the prosecutor’s office, Williford became Sanders’ campaign manager.

Williford, now director of intergovernmental affairs and chief of communications, has been on the county payroll since Jan. 18, 2005. His current salary is $115,000 per year. Evans, who has worked for Jackson County since Nov. 9, 1998, now earns $82,000 per year.

There are two videographers/photographers in the Communications Office, both of whom are classified as multimedia production specialists.

Of particular interest is Jeffrey Stead, husband of Deann Smith, who held down the Jackson County government beat for The Kansas City Star during the hotly contested county executive primary contest between Sanders and Charles B. Wheeler. Stead was hired for his current position on Feb. 5, 2007 about the time The Star transferred Smith to other reporting duties. Stead earns $39,000 per year. Tara Pollard, the other multimedia production specialist, has worked for Jackson County since June 9, 2003, and earns $45,000 per year.

Angela Jeffries, classified as a marketing and media supervisor, was hired May 21, 1992, and earns $47,200 per year.

Attached to the Executive Office, along with Williford, is Jeph Burroughs-Scanlon, who holds the post of acting public information officer. He was hired Jan. 5, 2007, and earns $50,000 per year.

The new director of the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department, who handed Larry Falkin and Chris Bussen their termination notices, is Michelle Newman, daughter of Hila “Dutch” Newman, president of the Westport Landing Democratic Club. “Dutch” Newman was active in the Sanders’ campaign for county executive.

Tom Bogdon is a Kansas City-based writer. He can be contacted at tjbogdon@yahoo.com.


              
              
                 

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