Kansas City seeks sales tax renewal to help fund Fire Department

07/12/2014 3:45 PM

07/12/2014 6:58 PM

Mike Cambiano, president of Kansas City’s firefighters union, remembers the deplorable condition of some city fire stations before voters approved a quarter-cent fire sales tax in 2001.

Rat infestations, sewer backups and leaky roofs were common.

Those days are gone. Since the 15-year sales tax took effect Jan. 1, 2002, it has generated more than $200 million to build six new stations and remodel six more, plus hire 135 firefighters and acquire a modern dispatch system.

Now the department says it needs voters in August to renew that sales tax for 20 years to retain most of those firefighters, upgrade its fleet and possibly continue station improvements. The money covers more than 10 percent of the Fire Department’s annual $140 million budget, and no alternate source of funds has emerged.

“If it’s not renewed, it would be devastating,” Fire Chief Paul Berardi said, adding that the money will be used for everything from “Band-Aids to diesel fuel to fire trucks to fire stations to people.”

The tax raises about $18.5 million annually for the department, with about $13.5 million going for salaries and the rest for debt on building and equipment improvements.

No organized opposition has emerged to the tax proposal, Question 1 on Kansas City’s Aug. 5 ballot.

The department has a list of desired expenses that could be paid for if the tax is renewed for 20 years. But Berardi and Cambiano acknowledge the ballot language does not promise any specific projects, giving the department great flexibility to spend the money as it chooses for “operation.”

Doubts persist, however, about how much money actually would be available for new projects.

A Municipal revenue commission said several years ago that it is not prudent to use a renewable sales tax to perpetually pay salaries. But the city has never found another viable source of funds to cover the salaries of those firefighters hired after the tax took effect.

City Manager Troy Schulte confirmed that the bulk of the sales tax will still be needed to cover salaries for 105 firefighters out of a workforce of 1,200.

Berardi, Cambiano and other city officials provided answers to key questions that political clubs and voters have been asking:

Why renew the tax now instead of waiting until it expires in 2016?

The firefighters union didn’t want to bump up against renewal of the city’s 1 percent earnings tax, which also occurs in 2016. Berardi pointed out that the City Council is beginning a five-year financial plan for the city, so it needs to know now whether the tax will be extended.

Why renew for 20 years?

“I don’t see the need going down,” Berardi said. The department has responded to an average of about 105,000 calls in each of the past five years. Medical calls account for about 70,000, while fires account for about 15,000. The rest include interagency assistance, rescues and hazardous-materials calls.

How would the money be spent?

Cambiano said that the most pressing needs, aside from pay, are to upgrade eight fire stations that still don’t have adequate facilities for female employees, and to replace aging hook and ladder trucks and pumpers.

Berardi said the department ideally would spend about $5 million per year on fleet replacement in the early years of the tax, but Schulte said that’s not likely to happen because salaries and debt payments eat up too much of the money. Schulte hopes to address fleet needs through a less-expensive lease-purchase arrangement.

The department also says the city needs to build fire stations in the far northeast and southeast portions of the city, costing about $4 million each, but Schulte said the tax is unlikely to provide enough money for those stations.

Why doesn’t the city pay for salaries some other way?

“That’s the rub,” said City Councilwoman Jan Marcason, chairwoman of the council’s finance committee. She said the council would like to make sure the city isn’t so reliant on sales tax money for salaries but hasn’t found another way to pay the $13.5 million per year to cover staffing needs.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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