Civic Council leader reflects on sales-tax defeat

11/19/2013 5:48 PM

11/19/2013 5:48 PM

Many successful big metros have an influential group of civic leaders to help shape their destiny, and more than most, Kansas City, with its two states and multiple counties, sorely needs the kind of guidance that transcends parochial politics.

They are the modern equivalent of village elders. For example, in Omaha, it’s the Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation; in Minneapolis-St. Paul, it’s the Itasca Project; in St. Louis, it’s Civic Progress; and locally, it’s the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City.

That’s why the reaction of the Civic Council to the crushing defeat of its half-cent medical research sales tax initiative two weeks ago is important. This is a group that’s been low profile almost to a fault over the years, and it threw the dice big time: Members dropped more than $1.3 million on the campaign.

A little background. The Civic Council was established almost 50 years ago by the CEOs of 15 major local employers with, according to its original vision, “one single overriding purpose: to make the Greater Kansas City area a better place in which to live and work and thereby to create a vigorous, healthy business and industrial climate.”

Its membership has since grown to include 90 senior business executives.

Over the past dozen years alone, its helped fund the 2001 Sasaki report that laid the groundwork for downtown’s revival, supported the new arena, funded a study of City Hall finances, helped the campaign to retain the earnings tax, and enlisted the Downtown Council to try to help the struggling 18th and Vine District.

So with 84 percent of Jackson County voters saying “no” to its sales tax idea, would that crushing defeat prompt the Civic Council to take its marbles and go home?

“The voters did speak, and it is a disappointing outcome for us and a lot of other groups working with the life sciences,” said Donald Hall Jr., the current chairman of the Civic Council and CEO of Hallmark. “We took that very hard.”

Life science research has been a top priority for the Civic Council for more than a decade, and Hall said the sales tax initiative, which would have raised $40 million annually to support what would have been called the Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine, would have been the crowning achievement.

Almost everyone agreed with the goal, but the funding mechanism was widely viewed as being a very tough sell.

“The funding method was under a lot of debate,” Hall said. “We wanted to find an alternative method as well, but after many years, we’d exhausted other options to find a vehicle that would work like the sales tax proposal.”

Hall said precedent had been set in 2008 when Johnson County voters approved a one-eighth-cent sales tax that generates $15 million annually for its Education Research Triangle.

Though the proposed Jackson County tax was four times larger, Hall said it was roughly equivalent over the long haul because it had a 20-year limit while the JoCo tax is open-ended.

The Civic Council also believed a sales tax increase could be palatable because Jackson County property tax rate had been reduced 1.1 percent through “efficiency gains.”

“Therefore we felt the capacity was there in Jackson County to re-purpose that reduction,” he said.

“We actually thought it would fly. We’d gotten positive polling over the last couple of years and got a lot of verbal support from various groups.

“But what we learned in this as we got beyond the planning and vision, and really started to put it forward, the economic development message got overshadowed by the message about the tax. We couldn’t have picked a worse time. Voters are enraged by Washington, D.C. There’s a strong anti-government bent and anti-tax bent.”

So why did the Civic Council, whose very mission is to look at the big metropolitan picture, focus its medical research effort solely on Jackson County?

“It is a larger vision,” Hall said, “certainly for the city which is in Jackson County, and those institutions (Children’s Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City) serve the region.

“It would have been joining Kansas in a roughly equivalent basis to create a cluster in Johnson and Jackson County for research. It also was a capital acquisition strategy to bring scientists with local money in that would attract hundreds of millions in grant money.”

So will the Civic Council retreat into its cave or stay engaged?

“We’re just as dedicated to improving the community as we have ever been,” Hall said. “We’ve worked on a number of endeavors, some successful, some not.

“This will only cause us to redouble our efforts to make a difference to improve the quality of life and economic vitality of the region.”

Another sales tax initiative, however, is “off the table,” and yes, the offer by the Hall Family Foundation to donate $75 million to build the institute if voters approved the tax is gone.

“There’s no reason for an institute anymore because that’s where the scientists would have been housed,” Hall said.

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