For years, Kansas City residents have pleaded for better roads, bridges, sidewalks and flood control. On Tuesday, voters put those community priorities ahead of individual pocketbook concerns and approved a massive, $800 million infrastructure package and the property tax increases to help pay for it.
The city plans to borrow and invest $800 million over 20 years in what is now the largest general obligation bond authorization in city history.
The city’s plan comprised three ballot questions, and each required a supermajority 57.1 percent approval. While that was a high bar, each question easily passed.
▪ Question 1, seeking $600 million for streets, bridges and sidewalks, passed with 66 percent support, in nearly complete unofficial returns.
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▪ Question 2, seeking $150 million for flood control, had 61 percent support.
▪ Question 3, seeking $50 million for a new animal shelter plus other city building upgrades, had nearly 67 percent support.
Election authorities had expected a turnout of barely 10 percent, but it was higher than that. More than 60,000 people voted, nearly twice the 34,000 who voted in the 2015 mayor’s race.
The vote was a big win for Mayor Sly James and City Council members, most of whom campaigned hard since January for these improvements. James and City Manager Troy Schulte attended dozens of neighborhood meetings urging support. James said it was the only way to start to address several billion dollars’ worth of a maintenance backlog that the city has neglected for decades.
“There’s only two options. We can fix it. Or watch it crumble,” James said before the election. “Nobody likes to talk about the tax aspects, but the fact of the matter is there’s no way to do it other than that.”
On Tuesday night, James said he was thrilled with the vote and determined to honor the voters’ trust in the city to spend the money wisely. He said Schulte should have a preliminary list of projects to tackle by May.
Schulte also thanked the residents for putting their faith in the city to improve a broad swath of roads, bridges, sidewalks and other infrastructure.
“They’ve been telling us for years to invest more in infrastructure,” Schulte said. “We delivered the package, and they responded.”
Campaign officials hoped James’ strong popularity as mayor would help sell the program, and it worked. James’ picture and supportive comments were on thousands of mailers that went to frequent voters, in a campaign that cost nearly $1 million. It was paid for largely by the Heavy Constructors of Kansas City, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and other chamber and civic groups, plus large engineering and development firms and organized labor.
The proposals had little organized opposition, but some groups such as the Freedom Inc. African-American political club campaigned against it, saying the tax increase was too much at a time when city water and sewer bills are also rising rapidly. They also said the city had not specified exactly which streets and other projects would be built, although the city did provide a list of needed projects that officials hope to address.
Shortly after James was first elected in 2011, he said he wanted to start addressing the city’s infrastructure backlog, and at that time he proposed a $1 billion plan. But the city was still reeling from the recession, and credit rating agencies balked, fearing it would add too much to the city’s heavy debt load.
Since then, the city has paid down some of its debt and has a plan to retire about $80 million to $100 million per year in debt. So James and the City Council said the time was ripe now to address what has been a constant complaint from citizens: pothole-filled streets, crumbling sidewalks, floods that fill basements and businesses, a deplorable and outdated animal shelter, and other building shortcomings.
The bond proposal calls for issuing about $40 million per year over 20 years, and property taxes would rise gradually to help pay off those bonds. James said this was the most prudent and affordable way to fix the most critical infrastructure problems.
Question 1 calls for spending $450 million on streets and bridges, including such roads as North Brighton Avenue in the Northland, 27th Street from Troost to Prospect avenues, and Wornall Road in south Kansas City. It also calls for spending $150 million on a new sidewalk repair program. No longer would individual property owners bear the cost for fixing their own sidewalks. Instead, the city plans to address needed sidewalk repairs throughout the city, using a prioritization criteria that would emphasize schools, employment centers and other factors.
Question 2 calls for spending $150 million, which is intended to match more than $500 million in federal flood control dollars already included in water legislation. The city hopes to address flooding in Brookside, Westport, the Dodson and Swope industrial districts, lingering Turkey Creek issues and miles of levees.
Question 3 calls for spending $14 million on a new animal shelter in Swope Park, plus other city building improvements. The animal shelter became a signature project to sell the entire bond pakcage and drew support from a wide array of civic leaders and even Royals pitcher Danny Duffy.
Much of the money is also intended for addressing an unfunded federal mandate that the city make its buildings, parks and sidewalks more accessible to those with disabilities.