February 9, 2012

KC mayor wants $1 billion for street repairs, other maintenance

Kansas City Mayor Sly James called Thursday for a $1 billion infusion of new spending on the city’s crumbling streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James called Thursday for a $1 billion infusion of new spending on the city’s crumbling streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure.

That amount of money would require voter approval and probably annual property tax increases. But it’s necessary, James said, for the city to finally get a handle on its huge maintenance needs.

“I feel strongly that we need to start doing something about our infrastructure problem,” James said, “or stop complaining about it.”

Other recent mayors, including Kay Barnes and Mark Funkhouser, also pledged to focus on infrastructure, but not to this magnitude.

While Barnes was mayor, voters in 2004 authorized $300 million in general obligation bonds for numerous basic infrastructure improvements, although tens of millions of those dollars went for the zoo and Liberty Memorial.

By May of this year, that $300 million will be exhausted and the maintenance backlog remains.

James said $1 billion in general obligation bond authority — the largest in city history — is needed to start rebuilding neighborhoods and nurture the city’s growth.

“We must address our pressing priorities and we must do it now,” James told the City Council.

To achieve that for infrastructure improvements, the mayor called for issuing $100 million in bonds annually over the next 10 years.

If the City Council and voters approved, that level of borrowing probably would require a property tax increase. For the owner of a $150,000 house and a $15,000 car, city finance officials estimated those bond issues would cost an estimated $44 in additional taxes annually for each $100 million in bonds issued. So by the end of the 10 years, the annual increase could be more than $400.

City Council members gave James a standing ovation after he summarized his budget message during Thursday’s business meeting.

Some said afterward they had just received the mayor’s proposal and weren’t yet ready to commit to a bond election. But they applauded the mayor for making a bold pitch to address an issue that leaves residents perpetually frustrated.

“I admire the fact that he’s taken it on,” said Finance Chairman Jan Marcason. “I think we’re going to consider it because it is a high priority for our residents.”

Russ Johnson, chairman of the council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the mayor’s proposal would allow the council to have an honest conversation with the public. If residents want their city fixed, he said, they have to be willing to pay for it.

“Infrastructure in the U.S. is expensive,” he said.

With that money, the mayor proposed rebuilding depressed neighborhoods, six square blocks at a time, at $10 million to $15 million per project.

James also called for rebuilding 10 to 20 miles of roadway each year, at $5 million per mile. The city also would spend $20 million a year rebuilding sidewalks. And it would complete $60 million in needed bridge repairs.

Part of the bond money, the mayor said, could be used to help the city replace its crumbling water mains, although much of that work also would be paid for with continuing water rate increases. This year’s rate increases have not yet been announced.

The proposed bonds would be separate from the city’s 25-year plan to spend $2.5 billion overhauling its sewers. So far, those costs are being paid with sewer rate increases.

James’ message came in response to City Manager Troy Schulte’s Jan. 17 budget recommendation. The mayor said he generally agreed with many of the city manager’s ideas, including cutting the Fire Department’s budget by $7.6 million.

Schulte had proposed eliminating 105 firefighter positions, but James instead said he would leave it up to Fire Chief Smokey Dyer as to how to accomplish the proposed cuts.

“By allowing Chief Dyer to trim his budget, he can do so in a way that is most efficient and effective in providing fire protection and emergency health care,” James wrote in his budget letter.

Dyer declined to comment on that challenge.

More than 200 police officers packed the City Council Chamber on Thursday. Brad Dumit of the Fraternal Order of Police said afterward that the police were there out of concern over how their health insurance plan will be affected by this year’s budget discussions. Dumit said police have been left out of the negotiations.

James said he expects the city and police department to reach an agreement soon on that new plan.

The mayor also asked the city manager to find $1 million in next year’s budget for other key priorities. Those requests will be considered as the council debates the budget proposal over the next six weeks.

Among the mayor’s other requests:

• $200,000 to hire and provide staff for a “chief innovation officer” to recommend innovations and make sure the city’s money is spent in an efficient way.

• $200,000 for a pilot program in which police would use closed circuit TV to monitor streets in real time in high-crime areas.

• $200,000 for additional summer programming for youths and extended community center hours to avoid having large roaming crowds disturbing people at the Country Club Plaza and other entertainment districts.

• $200,000 for future administrative costs in the Green Impact Zone.

• $100,000 for youth summer internships, which the mayor hoped would be bolstered with private contributions.

• $50,000 to enhance third-grade reading readiness.

• $25,000 for the mayor’s arts task force, to promote the city’s cultural and arts offerings.

• $25,000 for the Chamber of Commerce’s urban neighborhood initiative.

The council will adopt a new budget March 22 and it takes effect May 1.

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