This interview initially aired on KWTO’s Morningline, now hosted by OI’s editor Jason Wert from 6-8 a.m. on 560 AM and 93.3 FM.
Ozarks Independent: You recently gave your State of the City address where you said the state of the city was very good. When you were putting together your speech, what did you really think stood out the most as the good things from the past year?
Mayor Ken McClure: In the State of the City, you want to talk about a lot of things and cover a lot of ground and I had a hard time cutting it down. You want to set out your accomplishments, what we’ve been able to do together as a city, you recognize where you want to go as a city, so you try to plan out the next two years.
You want to not run away from your challenges, so we talk about those. And then the last thing you want to set a vision, dream a little bit.
A big part of that has always been recognizing people in our community who do good things. We did that all the way from our police and fire departments to former council members to educators. I even had a 10 year old young man that I had interaction with at Robberson Community School.
You want to do a lot of things during the State of the City and I don’t know if we had time to do it all justice but I think we covered a lot of ground. It was difficult to get it down to a manageable time frame.
OI: Let me bring up something that you mentioned in your State of the City address, and it’s something that came up during the City Council retreat. This was something that developed as its own theme: Quality of Place. How do you define that for the city?
McClure: Well, there are so many aspects to that and that will play a key role as we look into our comprehensive plan.
What makes Springfield special?
We’ve talked about economic vitality. You want to make Springfield a place where people want to live, where they want to stay, where they want to attract visitors.
We talk about outdoors everywhere. We talk about theatre, we talk about the arts. We talk about what makes Springfield great. We talk about our great healthcare, we have a great education system.
Quality of place means you’ve got to get people here and you’ve got to want to make them stay here and that fits so well into what our Council priorities are.
OI: So at the Council retreat, things in this category that were mentioned were things like the Greenways trails. So Quality of Place is basically the things you would use to sell Springfield to someone to come here?
McClure: Right. When we look at what makes Springfield special, we say what is our unique vision.
The Ozark Greenways trails are just so unique. Several of us went to northern Arkansas in early May and looked at the Razorback Trail there that runs from Bella Vista to Fayetteville and that is really defining them.
We have a great trail system through Ozark Greenways and we’re trying to connect them all right now. That’s going to make us unique. Walkability. It’s not only good for health but it’s something that makes the community special. You want to be able to walk where we’re going.
You look at Jordan Valley Park, the Idea Commons. What can we do to make that more viable?
You might remember one of our previous focuses was economic vitality. We continue that. You can say quality of place is part of economic vitality, and it is, but you can also easily say that it’s deserving of a place all its own, and it ties in very well to what we want to do.
OI: One of the issues raised in your State of the City address and the retreat was the skills gap. Even though we have low unemployment, we have a high poverty rate, because people are not necessarily trained for the higher paying jobs that are available. Do we have enough job training options in the city?
McClure: Well, it’s a common effort that’s going to have to take place between the city government, the state government, the private sector and the higher education sector.
As you mentioned, we have more jobs than we have qualified people to fill them. We have low wages, we have poverty, but we also have good paying jobs. We call that the “skills gap”, not having trained workers to fill [the jobs].
That’s why we have things like the OTC Center for Advanced Manufacturing that’s in the works to be a good training center for those types of jobs. We’re focusing on telling high school students you don’t have to go to college. Many do, but you don’t have to.
Back in April, we had the third annual Build my Future for high school juniors and seniors. That was a partnership between the city’s workforce development office, the Home Builders Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Contractor’s Association. All of those working together to bring in high school juniors and seniors. We had over 2,000 students this year from 900 when we started it.
We had vendors, we had contractors. We had people talking about how you can be a carpenter, you can be a plumber, you can work masonry. Good jobs, good paying jobs, and we need them in our community.
OI: For so many years, the theme hammered to students was “you gotta go to college, you gotta go to college, you gotta go to college.” But you can build a well paying career without going to college.
McClure: Right. And we’ve been in that mode. Certainly you want people to go to college who need to go to college. And we need a good, affordable higher education system.
OI: And in saying you can have a career without college, that’s not knocking our colleges at all.
McClure: Not at all! We have an outstanding set of colleges and I would put our higher education system up against any city in the nation, especially a city our size.
But not everyone needs to do that. You can make a very good living in different skill sets. And that, to me, is the answer to what we have to do to get the poverty rate down and get average wages up. It deals with so many issues.
The skills gap to me is so intertwined in what we do.
And we’re not unique. I’ve heard Governor Parson talk about the skills gap in just about every speech I’ve heard him give. Workforce development is in there.
It’s so many partnerships, and that’s what makes it a challenge but it’s an exciting one, because we have great partners in Ozarks Technical Community College, in Missouri State, in the Springfield School District. All of them are partners playing their part in this.
OI: You mentioned the poverty rate. The poverty rate in the city is just over 25%. The city’s already doing a lot to fight it. What more can the city do?
McClure: Again, it comes back to the skills gap and making people aware of the good jobs that are there. The jobs are here. It would be one thing if the jobs weren’t here, but they are, and you have to match people up with those jobs with the necessary type of training that they need.
But there are so many other factors that play into this. I’ve spoken often about the problem of opioid abuse. Prescription drug abuse. We have many of our lower income citizens who are addicted to those substances.
All of that plays a role. You have to have a coordinated program to try and educate people, to try and get them the skills training they need, and help them deal with some of the challenges that we collectively face as a society.
We have the prescription drug monitoring program that the state has not yet passed, we’ve put it in place locally. All of that plays a role in our low wages and our poverty level.
OI: Let me bring up a complaint I’ve heard from readers. We have the jobs, but the wages are the level that they have to work two or three of those jobs to have a decent living. What can we do to get the wages to go up?
McClure: Well, then you get into the debate about whether you raise the minimum wage. That’s an age old debate: does it help, does it hurt? You have valid arguments on both sides. But ultimately it comes down to what the market will bear.
Ultimately, we have manufacturers here that are screaming for good workers. We also have employers, roofing companies for example, that tell me they can’t keep employees.
We have to train on job skills. That’s an effort going on with our workforce development office.
For example, I’ll have an employer tell me they’ll hire someone. They show up the first day up at 8 o’clock, they’ll show up the next day at 9 o’clock and the third day they won’t show up at all.
So there’s a good paying job that’s going unfilled and I think it’s because of needing to train on just basic skills. How do you conduct yourself in an interview? How do manage a checkbook? How do you develop a strong work ethic?
And I think that’s a fault on us as a society because we have got to do that type of training that gets people prepared to go into the workplace and what would be expected of them at a job.
If we did not have the jobs, it would be an entirely different discussion, but we do, so we have to discuss how to get people ready to be a part of that workforce.
OI: In the recent quality of life survey, residents identified crime as an issue, with theft and stealing in their neighborhoods as a concern went from 64 to 72 percent. Drugs from 45 to 58 percent. There’s a perception of an increase in crime. Is it reality or a perception?
McClure: Let me answer this in several ways. When I gave the State of the City address, I mentioned when I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon for us as kids to play outside until the street lights came on and then you go in. But as we grew up, so did our town, and we had the challenges that go with a growing city.
Two years ago when we had our 2017 election, every candidate that ran successful and unsuccessful talked about public safety. They talked about the need for more police officers, more police coverage.
We really did not have an idea on how to pay for it. In November 2017, the city passed an extension at no tax increase the level property tax, with the idea of using that excess money we had for bond issues to focus on public safety.
We’ve done that. We’ve hired 19 additional investigators. We focused on domestic violence unit. We have for the first time in a long time, police academy classes that are full. So we’ve been able to do a good job in recruiting.
We just approved a collective bargaining agreement with the Springfield Police Officers Association which is doing significant things to raise the wages.
Chief Williams keeps telling us as a community the only valid comparison on crime is to yourself. You’ll see these national reports on where Springfield is with crime and some are good, some are bad. The Chief says you have to compare yourself to yourself.
So we’ve been doing this and last year, for the first time in a decade, we had a decrease in overall crime. That’s headed in the right direction. Some numbers we’ve seen recently, that’s starting to tick up, but we’re working against that.
We’re trying to pay the police officers a good wage and I think we’re close to doing that. We have police academies that are full. We have a good collective bargaining agreement.
As we grow as a community, our challenges grow. And so our challenge as a community is how do we keep up with that make our community as safe as possible?
OI: Comparing to ourselves, we ran a story on the first quarter report, we jumped from 3 homicides to 6, we had an increase in robbery, a 28% overall increase in crimes against persons over that period. Are you hoping that with this full police academy once the officers are on the street those numbers will go down?
McClure: I would not want to predict what crime rates are going to do.
OI: You really can’t.
McClure: No, you really can’t. What you find many times in homicides and in many types of domestic assaults the people involved are related or know each other. So it’s not like there’s a random serial killer out there and you have to look at it that way. So I’m not going to try and predict the crime rate.
What we have to do is make sure the police have the resources which they need, which is always a challenge, but the community two years ago approved the reallocation of funds and we’ve worked hard to be good stewards of those funds.
OI: We’re coming up on the renewal of the 3/4 cent police/fire pension fund tax.
McClure: In 2009, there was a sales tax that was approved to deal with the pension fund. The pension had reached a low level of 36 percent funded back in 2009. The voters put that in place with a five year plan that expired in 2014, it was renewed in 2014, it will come up again for renewal later this year.
We are currently at an actuarial funding level of 86 percent. When you compared that to ten years ago, that’s a major, major improvement.
We’re looking at going on the ballot in November for a renewal. Our projections show us that close to or before the end of the next term, the fund will be 100 percent, and so the tax will go away.
The city still has an obligation to fund that. We put in $35 million a year into the police/fire pension fund and that’s beyond what the 3/4 cent sales tax generates.
That’s an obligation the city has, that plan was closed out in back in 2006 I believe. All new hires are under LAGERS, the Local Government Employee Retirement System. But we have an obligation to take care of the police and firefighters that were under the old plan.
But it’s coming back to the voters. We strongly believe we have an obligation to do that. It was supported strongly the last time after just barely passing the first time, but I think the community has seen there has been progress that has been made. Up to 86 percent from 36? That’s a great step forward.
So we probably have one renewal yet to do, but we’re well within sight of that 100 percent.
OI: The community seems willing to pitch in an help if you can prove your case. They won’t say “give us another tax” unless you can really prove it’s going to work.
McClure: We are very sensitive to that. The city, as you correctly stated, wants to be shown. I think the city over the years, and it long predates me or anyone on council, shows that it will do what it says you will do.
It’s so critical. You have to show the voters if you give us your hard earned tax dollars, we’re going to do with it what we say and you’re going to see the results.
I have no doubt the voters are going to approve this because it’s a good story to tell, but we will get out there and make sure to answer any questions the citizens may have on this.
The interview will be continued in Part Two.