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All nine members of the Jackson County Legislature — which oversees spending and makes crucial decisions about tax assessments, jail operations and other functions of Missouri’s second largest county — are up for election in 2022.
In the days leading up to the Jackson County primary, The Beacon will introduce many of the races and candidates. In the 1st District, an open seat has kicked off a lively contest among three Democratic candidates on the Aug. 2 Jackson County primary ballot. A Republican candidate, Christina McDonough Hunt, is also running and will proceed uncontested to the general election in November.
The 1st District, which saw its boundaries redrawn in a redistricting process earlier this year, includes almost all neighborhoods west of Troost Avenue, as well as downtown, River Market, the Berkley Riverfront Park, the Northeast Industrial District and North Indian Mound.
Running to represent the district in the Jackson County primary are:
- Geoff Gerling: Former executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Party and the Midwest Innocence Project
- Justice Horn: Member of Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission, community activist and former student body president at the University of Missouri-Kansas City
- Manny Abarca: Current treasurer for the Kansas City Public Schools board and deputy district director for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver
The Beacon sent all three Democratic candidates a list of five questions about what they hope to accomplish as a Jackson County legislator.
Responses have been edited for clarity, length and Associated Press style.
Click on a question to jump ahead:
- What new perspectives will you bring to the legislature?
- What will be the most important factors for you when making yearly budget decisions?
- How will you make yourself available to your constituents throughout your term?
- If elected, what are two or three specific things you plan to recommend to improve the county government?
- How has the legislature been successful in the past, and how do you think it can improve?
What new perspectives will you bring to the legislature?
Geoff Gerling: I’m the only candidate in this race who has lived or worked in every part of the new 1st District. If we are going to make Jackson County an attractive community for the next generation, we need people in office who understand the diversity, assets and challenges of the whole area. I believe my experiences as a nonprofit executive who has served our community in areas ranging from legal aid to the arts make me equipped to represent everyone in this diverse district.
Justice Horn: In a time where most elected officials are over the age of retirement, the voices of young, diverse, driven individuals are what will turn this county around. There has never been an openly LGBTQ+ legislator in Jackson County’s 100-year history, and I’d be the first Black person elected to represent the 1st District, covering areas like Downtown, the Historic Northeast, Country Club Plaza and Brookside. Instead of asking for permission from establishment politicians who only care about themselves, my majority-LGBTQ+ and Gen Z team and I decided to run a grassroots, policy-focused campaign. Not for me, but for us.
Manny Abarca: [ I will bring ] over a decade of combined experience in the federal, state and local government bureaucracies and at U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver’s office. Coupled with over 10 years of neighborhood volunteerism and philanthropic board service, I understand the physical needs and challenges throughout the county. From serving a federally qualified health center to governing the regional leader for mental health services, I understand the needs of the health levy from day one. As the treasurer of one of the largest taxing jurisdictions, I have learned the complexities of property tax collection and the nuances needed to change it for the better.
What will be the most important factors for you when making yearly budget decisions?
Gerling: We need to think long term and also not delay work on projects and programs that need attention today. Failure to address obviously deteriorating situations is why we are now facing hundreds of millions of dollars in new building and renovation projects like the jail and courthouse. My priorities will always be focused on taxpayers getting the best value for their money and keeping that money in the Kansas City region, instead of awarding contracts out of state, as is frequently the case now. Priority should be placed on spending that serves the most good for the most people; health care, transportation and addressing issues within our most vulnerable communities.
Horn: Practically the only budgetary consideration that seems to have been made over the past 30+ years is solvency. The process of passing a budget should be cyclical and equitable; each budget season there must be an evaluation of the disbursement of the funds appropriated the previous year. Unfortunately, it seems the county hasn’t been concerned much with where the money actually goes — Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway (D) recently uncovered over $100 million in misappropriated funds by Jackson County. I won’t stop when the budget is passed; I’ll follow through to ensure that money goes exactly where it’s supposed to.
Abarca: Equitable funding, prioritizing the needs of those with the least instead of the wants of those with the most. At KCPS, we have a … model that was put in place by previous board members. This has been the most effective way to ensure true equity is met during budget decisions. It isn’t perfect but a good start to eliminating a patronage system, and empowering minority stakeholder voices and needs through budgeting. If it isn’t a budget priority, it isn’t a county priority.
How will you make yourself available to your constituents throughout your term?
Gerling: Once elected, being a Jackson County legislator will be my full-time job. I won’t just be in the office and available “by appointment only.” I will be at community meetings from downtown to Martin City, homeowners association meetings, and anywhere else where people have questions that the government needs to answer. I want to be the most visible and accessible elected official in Jackson County.
Horn: I believe how a politician campaigns is how they will govern. Over the past year, I’ve attended countless community meetings and knocked on over 2,000 doors as a candidate. My campaign is holding three tax assessment town halls to educate homeowners on how we arrived in this tax assessment crisis situation, how they can avoid tax hikes in 2023, and what we in the legislature can do to create a more equitable, transparent assessment process. When I’m a Jackson County legislator, nothing will change; you’ll still see me everywhere, gathering the information I need to advocate for our community.
Abarca: For the last eight years I managed the team that executed all constituent services for Congressman Cleaver, saving constituents millions of dollars and helping connect directly with the federal agencies. For too long, constituents have been disconnected from their legislators. I would support direct mail budgets and expanded staffing to communicate legislature efforts across the county. I could build a constituent-focused response training, as I did in the congressman’s office, to ensure every discussion and articulated need is effectively documented and followed up on. I furthermore commit to quarterly town hall meetings.
If elected, what are two or three specific things you plan to recommend to improve the county government?
Gerling: The property tax assessment and appeal process must be more taxpayer-friendly. We need more people in the assessor’s department who can improve the accuracy of home assessment. We also need a more modern appeal process. Further, we should allow all taxpayers the ability to pay on a quarterly or monthly basis, not just all at once before the end of the calendar year.
We need a public transportation system that connects the whole region and is reliable. That can be accomplished through expanded bus service and the development of a multicounty commuter rail system.
Horn: Equity and community go hand in hand. The LGBTQ+ community of Kansas City is protected by robust policy and the LGBTQ+ commission I helped create. Unfortunately, queer youth in the suburbs of eastern and southern Jackson County are still subject to traumatic conversion therapy. I will institute my LGBTQ+ policy plan, climate action and community protection plan, and tax assessment plan to expand equity to all corners of the county. To root out financial corruption, I will separate the office of county auditor from the legislature to ensure we are not only compliant, but accountable, in financial decisions.
Abarca: We must immediately find relief for property tax increases that are projected to increase on average of 30%, from the previous increases, to meet the state law’s requirement of 90% of value. I am the only candidate in this race with a clear plan to pass state legislation that protects seniors and folks on a fixed income, creates true payment programs lasting 12 months instead of just four, moves the collection date of property tax away from the holiday and creates clear discussions about the approval of 353 tax abatement programs that protect revenues of our taxing jurisdictions.
How has the legislature been successful in the past, and how do you think it can improve?
Gerling: I have admired how legislators have been able to work together regardless of political affiliation or geographics. That is something I hope continues next year when a historic number of first-time legislators come onto the job. I also like how many nonprofit organizations are being tapped to serve the residents of the county. Government agencies are not always the best way to meet the needs of the people. During my time campaigning, I’ve been amazed at how few people have any knowledge of county government. We need to be more accessible, available and transparent.
Horn: I’m not interested in discussing the extremely limited successes of Jackson County. They are dwarfed by the decades-long failure to restore trust in county stewardship and engage in relationships with the city of Kansas City, other counties in the region, and key stakeholders such as neighborhood associations and nonprofits. The county can only improve with media pressure and strong, community-centered candidates who aren’t willing to accept less than our community deserves. The truth is, Democrats and career politicians have enabled the depletion of our resources. I will advocate for everyone who’s fed up with “how it’s always been done.”
Abarca: I watched as the world shut down, everyone closing their doors in response to the global pandemic. I was in the driver’s seat as the treasurer of the Kansas City Public Schools board, navigating the challenges of closing classrooms, digital classes and trying to figure out how to safely reopen. Jackson County stepped up as a leader and collaborator within the region to establish streamlined and efficient programs to vaccinate, jump-start the economy after months of it being shuttered, and create a layered health care system managing limited bed space and ever-increasing demand. We watched regionalism firsthand.
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