Yael T. Abouhalkah

Sales taxes still crucial for better public assets in KC area

Updated: 2013-11-14T02:35:06Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Sales tax increases are not close to being dead as a way to finance critical public improvements in the Kansas City area.

That’s despite what happened last week when Jackson County voters turned down a new half-cent tax for medical research, and Blue Springs voters more narrowly spurned another half-cent tax for parks.

Those outcomes might cause some government officials to think twice about making requests for higher sales taxes, or for future renewals. Many voters could be more wary of endorsing new taxes now that rates in Kansas City and many of its suburbs have surpassed 8 percent and have hit 10 percent or higher in some shopping districts.

And yet …

Sales taxes are still the go-to vehicle for many cities and counties that want to finance upgrades to public assets. The taxes raise a lot of money: A quarter-cent sales tax creates about $30 million in all of Johnson County, $20 million in Jackson County and $16 million in Kansas City.

Recent sales tax activity has been high in Johnson County and Kansas City:

• On Tuesday, Olathe officials found out that 57 percent of voters — using mail-in ballots — had approved a needed 10-year, three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to boost street maintenance funds.

• Earlier this fall just more than 70 percent of Overland Park voters showed their confidence in the city’s street improvement program by extending an eighth-cent sales tax for 10 more years.

• Ballots will be mailed next Wednesday to Roeland Park voters so they can decide whether to levy a five-year, .35 percent sales tax to supplement the city’s general fund, which is losing hundreds of thousands in tax revenues with the closing of a Wal-Mart. Results will be announced in early December. Voters rejected a larger, three-quarter-cent hike in late 2012.

• In Kansas City voters early in 2013 in a small part of downtown passed a one-cent sales tax increase to help fund a two-mile streetcar line.

• Finally, Kansas Citians in late 2012 approved a half-cent sales tax increase for road and park improvement programs.

All of these elections followed successes over the past five years for taxes used to finance Police Department capital improvements as well as more bus service in Kansas City, and to fund mostly construction related to scientific research in Johnson County.

And — there’s more to come.

On Friday Jackson County Executive Michael Sanders is expected to announce a potential funding plan for a commuter rail system in 2014. An earlier proposal featured a new up to one-cent sales tax, and this proposal could, too.

Also next year, streetcar supporters hope that an extended system in Kansas City could be financed with a sales tax increase south of the Missouri River.

Kansas City officials are working on a plan that might extend the Fire Department’s sales tax that voters approved in 2001 to add firefighters and build fire stations. Mayor Sly James properly opposes including firefighters’ salaries in taxes that have a sunset, so a renewed tax could drop from its current quarter-cent level.

And in Missouri, some transportation officials hope to place an initiative on the 2014 ballot to hike the statewide sales tax by 1 cent for highway improvements. That approach, however, already has run into trouble with opponents who justifiably want user-pay financing for the upgrades through a higher gasoline tax. Missouri has the fifth lowest such tax in the nation.

Some or all of these plans might fall by the wayside, rejected by government officials or voters.

But the key point remains: Sales taxes will continue to be a reasonable way for this region to pay for crucial public projects in the future.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 p.m. Thursday on KCPT, Channel 19.

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