Good city auditors live perennially dangerous lives, but Mark Funkhouser's career in Kansas City, Missouri, almost ended before it started. Within months of arriving on the job, he issued a rather pointed critique of the city's proposed budget, which highlighted some of the less-than-sensible fiscal choices the city planned to make. His evaluation got the immediate attention of the city council, which demanded a meeting with their upstart rookie auditor. "I'm pretty sure they were going to fire me," Funkhouser says.
Fortunately for Kansas City, one other powerful interest had noticed Funkhouser’s frank fiscal dissection as well. The morning of Funkhouser's scheduled execution, the Kansas City Star ran an editorial, "Waves at City Hall," extolling Funkhouser and his staff for their outstanding work and suggesting that the sort of reporting Funkhouser's shop had just completed was exactly what the city needed on an ongoing basis. "Well, after that editorial, the council couldn’t very well say, 'Time to get rid of the new auditor,' " laughs Funkhouser.
That was in 1989. Since then, Funkhouser has continued along his unswerving path, offering dispassionate analyses of the function and finances of city services. He found, for example, that local utilities were tearing up just-paved sections of street and not paying for the damage. Nearby jurisdictions were buying surplus Kansas City water for better than bargain-basement rates. The police department’s failure to cover key 911 calls was often the result of antiquated deployment strategies rather than a lack of resources. The city was being ripped off by a local utility for street lighting. Multiple departments with responsibility for road maintenance and repair weren’t coordinating activity or sharing overhead or equipment, to name just a handful of important, audit-driven discoveries Funkhouser and his staff have made.
While Funkhouser has a long history of taking on the local power structure, he has not built a career on big-splash attacks. One high-profile audit in particular highlights Funkhouser's style, says Jeff Simon, a local attorney who served for four years on the board that oversees the Kansas City police department.
Having just won a hard-fought, multi-year battle with the K.C.P.D. over whether it could even be the subject of an audit, Funkhouser was expected to come at the department hard. "There was a lot of trepidation that he might just butcher it," says Simon. "So I scheduled a meeting with the ogre himself." He and Funkhouser hit it off almost immediately. "It was clear that he wasn't going to grandstand and that he wasn't trying to advance some political agenda," recalls Simon. In fact, Funkhouser handed Simon a draft of the report and asked for department input prior to publication. "I was thoroughly impressed with the product’s intelligence and integrity," Simon adds. "It was fair and balanced, pointing out what the department did well and what needed attention."
That has been the essence of Funkhouser's work, colleagues say, even those who’ve been the brunt of less-than-flattering reviews. "We've learned to appreciate his work," says Mark McHenry, a 29-year veteran and now director of the city's parks department, which has been a regular recipient of tough audits. McHenry can tick off a quick list of ways the department has improved its functions in the wake of audits. "There are times when we may agree to disagree," McHenry acknowledges, "but he raises good issues."
In recent months, Funkhouser has been involved in a high-visibility feud with Mayor Kay Barnes over the fiscal efficacy of tax-increment financing. Funkhouser doesn't think it's bankable; the mayor would like him to tone down his criticism. Some have suggested that the rift may lead to renewed attempts to replace Funkhouser. But the 54-year-old auditor is unfazed and says he plans to work for Kansas City until he retires.
Funkhouser’s overriding philosophy about his job isn't simply to make government run better, it’s about educating citizens to the inner workings of their city. "Auditing is about speaking truth to power," says Funkhouser. "And the ultimate power is the regular folks out there whom government is supposed to serve."
— Jonathan Walters
Photos by Dan White