Waiting for more details on KCs sales tax planBy YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
Blunt promises have been made in the last year to reform Kansas City government.
But the results so far havent been nearly as impressive as the rhetoric.
Thats why I and many other Kansas Citians are still evaluating whether to support the permanent half-cent sales tax increase on Aug. 7.
Mayor Sly James, the City Council and the city staff all agree on one matter: They want the extra $23 million the sales tax would create each year, after subtracting several property tax reductions also on the ballot.
Unfortunately, the politicians arent so sure how they will responsibly deal with high priority issues.
James emphasized fixing what he called a broken City Hall when he ran for office in 2011. One of his platform papers outlined problems that included a shortsighted budget, lack of citizen participation in evaluating city programs and, finally, politicians looking out for themselves and their interests instead of focusing on the people who live here.
Despite that dead-on analysis, take a look at what the politicians have actually done or more precisely, not done since taking office.
• The citys costly pension system? Unchanged, despite a 2011 citizens commission report calling for major reforms.
Right now, City Manager Troy Schulte is negotiating with union leaders and others behind the scenes, with no resolution expected until after the August tax vote on what might change in taxpayer support for the pension systems. How convenient.
• The excessive, taxpayer-supplied expenses of police health insurance plans? Unchanged, and now defended in courts by the Fraternal Order of Police. To give James and Schulte credit, they support reducing those expenses.
• The possibility of renewing a sales tax for the Fire Department in 2016? Its still on pace to happen, despite another citizens groups prudent recommendation against it.
In fact, James told me directly a few months ago that he would not endorse that suggestion because this was not the time to pick a fight with the powerful fire union, which finally after years of growth was forced to slightly reduce its staff. The council also buckled to the union and agreed to no further reductions in its workforce over the next few years. That was financially reckless.
• The citys tax increment financing situation? Its still a mess.
Fiscally irresponsible giveaways are now pending for Lenexa-based Freightquote to hop the state line and for a new Hyatt near the Country Club Plaza. So much for all the talk by James and others that a review of incentive plans could lead to smarter use of them.
• And theres still no long-term financial plan for the city budget, which the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City has been demanding for months.
Don Hall Jr., the Civic Councils chair, said his group will not support city ballot issues until the city completes a multi-year financial plan that could be used to evaluate the merits of specific proposals. That work is ongoing, he and city officials agree. But its not done yet.
Summed up, in some ways City Hall is rushing to ask voters to approve the higher sales tax before completing the hard work of reforming local government spending.
James frequently stresses the practical reasons to endorse the sales tax: The revenues would improve the Parks and Recreation Department and pave more roads.
And with his persuasive upbeat attitude, James has done his best to try to promote a more positive view of city government and how it operates. Many people like the mayor, a lot.
However, has City Hall changed its spots enough yet to convince Kansas Citians they should give it millions more in future tax revenue? Voters get to make those calls next month.