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Thanks to a statewide vote in November 2022, Kansas City will be required to increase its minimum funding for the Kansas City Police Department from 20% to 25% of the city’s revenues.
How will KCPD spend the money? That might not be easy for the public to find out, based on the department’s recent responses to records requests from The Beacon and others.
- KCPD responded to a request from The Beacon for information about a murky budget item, the “Self-Retention General Subsidiary Fund,” by assessing a “research fee” of $1,700. A spokesperson said the work would require 16 hours of research time at $105.79 an hour.
- A lengthy document from a whistleblower included an exchange with the department’s fiscal division, in which the whistleblower pushed back against KCPD’s demand for $163 simply to provide a list of the department’s 25 highest-paid employees.
The costly fees for information that is available to the public by law feeds into growing criticisms about secrecy on the part of the police department and its governing body, the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Advocates, city officials and even the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce have raised questions about the department’s lack of transparency regarding issues such as the selection of the new police chief and the investigation of a whistleblower letter released in December.
The secrecy is especially pronounced when it comes to KCPD’s budget. Even Kansas City’s mayor has unanswered questions about how the department spends its money. Though the initial spending plan must be approved by the City Council, the police board has the authority to move funds around without city approval and spend money as it sees fit.
Some of these reallocations are voted on in closed session meetings, with numbers redacted from official police board minutes.
Roughly $5.6 million in revenues and expenditures tied to legal settlements are unaccounted for in the police department’s own budget documents. And with so many barriers to public information, finding answers can be difficult.
KCPD’s budget documents show disparities totaling at least $5.6 million
The “Self-Retention General Subsidiary Fund,” established in 1991, is a fund the department uses when legal fees and claims, such as for brutality lawsuits, exceed the amount in the police budget already allocated for this purpose.
For every fiscal year, official police budget documents show the “actual” fund balance at the beginning and the end of the year, as well as total revenues and expenditures. But the balance sheet for the fund dating back to May 2013 — the last year records are available — shows a total of $5.6 million in either expenses or revenues that are unexplained in the official documents.
For example, $2.1 million mysteriously disappeared from the balance sheet between fiscal years 2015 and 2016. There is no record that it was spent for a particular purpose. But $1.7 million appeared without explanation on the balance sheet at the beginning of fiscal 2018, with no clue of where the money came from.
To make matters even more confusing, the closing balance for fiscal 2018 didn’t account for how the fund acquired an additional $1.7 million in revenues that year.
In an email, KCPD budget unit manager Kristine Reiter said the balance sheet is adjusted after the budget is published, making the official numbers inaccurate.
For example, the missing $2.1 million in 2015 is a result of “year-end financial statement entries (that) had not been entered when the budget was completed,” she said.
Reiter attributed the remaining $1.7 million in revenue that was unlisted in the balance sheet for fiscal 2018 to reimbursements from the Missouri attorney general’s office. These were not listed because the money was not received within 60 days of the end of the fiscal year, she said.
But Reiter’s explanations still leave large chunks of expenses and revenues undocumented. For example, the $1.7 million that reappeared at the beginning of fiscal year 2018 seems to have never left the fund, but simply wasn’t accounted for the previous year.
“There has to be a way for the public to see clearly how this money was spent, and if there are discrepancies, there has to be a clear explanation,” said Kathy Kiely, a professor and chair of free press studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. “Part of creating trust in government is being transparent … It has to be understandable, or it’s not transparent.”
Relevant documents buried under $1,700 research fee
Because of the inaccuracies within KCPD’s official budget documents, The Beacon submitted a record request under the Missouri Sunshine Law to the department’s fiscal division for the accurate fund balances dating back to the creation of the self-retention fund in 1991.
In response, KCPD’s media team cited a research fee of nearly $1,700.
The fee is based on an estimate of 16 hours of research time, billed at a rate of $105.79 per hour.
Officer Donna Drake, a spokesperson for KCPD, said the $105.79 rate includes $70.56 per hour for the researcher’s salary and an additional $35.23 per hour — a total of $563.68 — to pay for the researcher’s employment benefits. KCPD employees receive benefits such as health care and sick leave.
“That does not sound legal,” said Elad Gross, a St. Louis-based lawyer and a government transparency advocate. “It sounds like an attempt by a government agency to put up an illegal paywall to prevent members of the public from seeing public records, and especially essential ones when it comes to the use of taxpayer money.”
Gross successfully sued the Missouri governor’s office last year over a Sunshine Law request for campaign contributions that came with a $3,618 research fee. In its decision, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that agencies cannot include attorney review in the research fees associated with Sunshine Law requests.
“When you’re faced with very high exorbitant fees to see public records, most people don’t pay that fee and they drop their records request,” Gross said.
When The Beacon narrowed its request for fund balance sheets to only the most recent 15 years, the estimated research time decreased to four hours. The department still demanded the same hourly rate, bringing the total for the modified request to more than $400, including about $140 for the researcher’s benefit package.
KCPD’s inclusion of benefits in its research rate is sketchy legal territory. Gross said the Missouri Sunshine Law is written so that wherever there’s doubt about what agencies can charge, the law is applied to the benefit of transparency.
“If the government says, ‘Well, I know it doesn’t really say it here, but it doesn’t say we can’t do it,’ … that line of thinking has been explicitly struck down by the court,” he said.
The Beacon has sent a similar Sunshine request to the Missouri attorney general’s office for the yearly total amount of reimbursements the office made to KCPD’s self-retaining fund since 1991. The attorney general’s office said it would complete the request with no research fee, although documents would not be ready until March 8.
This fund has received $14 million from KCPD’s general fund since 2014
KCPD has fed the self-retention fund with millions of dollars since it was first established, including $14 million over the past eight fiscal years. Nearly half of this amount was transferred from the police department’s general fund without approval from the Kansas City Council.
Missouri statute places KCPD under state control, overseen by a police board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. Under this governance structure, KCPD submits a budget request to the city manager to be approved by the City Council.
Once the budget is approved and the funds are distributed to the department, the police board has the authority to reallocate funds without city approval.
For fiscal years 2019 through 2022, the official city budget allocated $1 million each year for transfers to the self-retention fund.
But during each fiscal year, the police board voted to reallocate additional money to the fund. In fiscal year 2019, the board funneled $2 million into the fund. It channeled nearly $2.4 million in fiscal year 2021.
The total amount reallocated to the self-retention fund for these four years is $6.7 million. This is in addition to the $4 million that was already allocated in the budget approved by the City Council.
These votes to reallocate funding often occur during closed sessions, without public oversight. The amounts are redacted from the published board meeting minutes.
The Beacon submitted a Sunshine Law request to KCPD for the number of instances each year since 2015 that the police board reallocated funding from any line item to pay for legal settlement fees, as well as the total amount reallocated in each instance.
In response, KCPD cited a research fee of $288.
KCPD charges the mayor and its own employees for record requests
Capt. Leslie Foreman, another spokesperson for KCPD, said the department determines research fees on an annual basis. The hourly rate takes into account the employee’s salary and benefits, which is done consistently for all employees who conduct research.
These research fees are levied for many Sunshine requests received by KCPD, including those submitted by the mayor’s office and the department’s own employees. The mayor’s office did not provide precise details about its requests prior to publication.
In a whistleblower packet containing hundreds of pages of emails and documents, a former associate general counsel for the department, Ryan McCarty, alleged that KCPD mishandled Sunshine requests and withheld evidence from prosecutors.
One of the emails in the packet is an exchange between McCarty and the department’s fiscal division, where McCarty was asked to pay $163 for a list of the department’s 25 highest-paid employees. This rate was charged at $65 an hour for two and a half hours of research time.
When McCarty expressed concern that this rate was not compliant with the Missouri Sunshine Law, the financial services unit said the rate had been approved by the police board.
“Unfortunately, the reasonableness of the rates is determined by the courts, not (the police board). I’m happy to go there if that is the final decision,” McCarty wrote in response.
When McCarty threatened legal action for noncompliance with the Sunshine Law, KCPD reduced the research time to one hour, but the rate remained $65 an hour.
Kiely, the Missouri journalism professor, said a government entity that charges an unreasonably high research fee is essentially billing the public twice.
“They’re asking the public to pay to get information on how the public’s money has been spent,” she said. “That suggests, to me, an attitude of entitlement that is unhealthy in a public organization. It’s not their money. It’s the public’s money.”