For years, Kansas City residents have clamored for better streets, parks and community centers.
On Aug. 7, voters will decide just how badly they really want them.
Badly enough to pass a sales tax increase?
Gwen Grant, president of the Greater Kansas City Urban League, and others say the ballot measure is a real test of whether people are willing to pay more to improve their crumbling roadways and neglected parks.
“People value those things and I certainly do value them,” said Grant, who plans to vote for the tax. But she’s also heard plenty of skepticism.
“Some are still concerned about just how this will impact people who can least afford to bear this burden,” she said. “There are so many people, households that would be impacted with a sales tax increase.”
City officials are trying to soften the blow by taking a carrot and stick approach. Approve a half-cent sales tax increase for parks, and they’ll also guarantee more money for street repairs. Plus, they’ll get rid of some unpopular property taxes.
The proposal is doubly challenging, though, because voters are also asked to approve a second ballot measure authorizing up to $500 million in new sewer bonds. No matter how that turns out, sewer rates will go up dramatically for the foreseeable future to pay for a federally mandated sewer overhaul program.
But Mayor Sly James said residents who constantly complain about their streets, parks and sewers need to be willing to provide sufficient funds to take care of them.
“We have to take care of the things we’ve got,” James said. “We have to appeal to people’s sense of the long view.”
The two proposals have the support of the Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Inc., the Downtown Council and numerous neighborhood and labor groups.
At least one influential group is withholding its endorsement.
The Civic Council, comprised of some of Kansas City’s leading business leaders, said it won’t support any Kansas City ballot issues until city officials complete a multi-year financial plan that can be used to evaluate the merits of these specific tax requests.
James said the long-range financing strategy should be complete in a few months.
City officials say the ballot measure would, for the first time, earmark a set percentage of money for streets. And the half-cent sales tax would provide parks with more stable funding after years of budget cuts.
“Parks are something this city has built its reputation on,” James said. “If we don’t have a supportive vote, we will run out of money shortly to operate our community centers.”
The city will have to convince people like West Side neighborhood leader Lynda Callon that it can spend the new money wisely.
“I’m really torn,” Callon said. She praises the city’s parks maintenance efforts but has less faith in its community center management and programming. She is also frustrated watching how streets get paved, only to be torn up and patched a short time later.
“It feels like the same streets keep getting dug up over and over again,” she said.
Supporters of the city’s tax plan respond that it is the best way to ensure the parks, community centers and streets don’t continue to deteriorate.
• The main questions on the tax measure remain:
Why is this so complicated?
The city is actually trying to simplify its tax structure and eliminate some taxes, while continuing to fund infrastructure. The sales tax would replace an annual fee of $12.50 per vehicle and several park and trafficway property taxes. While the vehicle fee and property taxes are paid solely by residents, the sales tax is also paid by non-residents who use the streets and parks.
How high will the new sales tax rate be?
Kansas City’s sales tax rate in most of Kansas City/Jackson County would increase from 7.85 to 8.35 percent. It would increase to 8.1 percent in Kansas City/Clay County and 8.475 in Kansas City/Platte County. That would rank Kansas City’s sales tax slightly lower than the rates in Johnson County, but Johnson County sales tax rates are set to drop next summer.
So, with all the additions and subtractions, what’s the bottom line?
The new sales tax would raise about $34 million. But that’s offset by some property tax relief. Eliminating the vehicle fee saves $3.5 million, and halting the property taxes saves $10.5 million. For people owning more than one car and other property, the tax reform might actually save them money. But for people who don’t own a car or a home, the sales tax increase will hit them harder.
What tangible differences would I see in the parks?
Park officials say they could clean playgrounds, shelter houses and fountains more often, prune more shrubs and plant nearly 100 more flower beds. They could add youth programming at the community centers, where the average hours would expand from 70 to 90 hours per week (especially on weekends).
The new tax would provide a net increase of about $3 million over current funding for parks and community centers. The department says it could hire about 40 more community center and park maintenance employees.
Will the streets be less bumpy?
They should be, if the city keeps its promises. Under the ballot language, if the parks department gets a dedicated sales tax, the city has pledged to put about $15 million more from the earnings tax into a dedicated street fund. This year, the city is spending just $8 million on street maintenance, and nothing on complete street reconstruction. This new money should bump annual street maintenance spending up to more than $20 million.
What happens if this doesn’t pass?
Streets will likely continue to be in poor shape, and the park department will have a budget gap. That’s because the motor vehicle fee is expiring no matter what, so that’s a loss of $3.5 million to the community centers, whose total budget is $4.4 million. The most likely result would be a big reduction in community center hours and programs and more cuts to park maintenance.
What do critics say?
There is no organized opposition to the proposal. But some residents say now is not the time for a sales tax increase, especially one that doesn’t have an expiration date. Most other city sales taxes have a sunset, which allows voters to review them from time to time and decide whether they should be renewed. City officials respond that park operations need a permanent, stable funding source, so the tax should be permanent.
• Questions on the sewer measure:
Why do we need to do this?
The city needs voter approval to issue $500 million in additional bonds for sewers. This would be part of the $2.5 billion in improvements that the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring to stop wastewater overflows into Kansas City’s rivers and streams. St. Louis voters recently approved $900 million in bonds for a similar project.
To pay for that borrowing, Kansas City sewer customers would see their rates go up 15 percent for the next two years, and then 13 percent annually through 2020.The average monthly sewer bill would be about $45 by 2015 and $84 by 2020. (That’s just sewer. Water charges would be on top of that).
Will the money be used to fix all the broken water mains?
No. This would just be for sewer upgrades. There’s a separate pot of money for water main repairs and replacements.
What happens if it doesn’t pass?
City officials warn that if voters don’t authorize these bonds, the sewer rates will go up even faster — 24 percent in 2014 and a whopping 89 percent in 2015, with an average monthly sewer charge at that time of $81. The rates would rise faster because the city would need to raise the money up front, rather than borrowing it and paying it back over time. It’s like paying for your house all with cash, instead of borrowing the money for a mortgage and paying it back more slowly over time.
Are there future tax increases on the horizon in Kansas City?
Mayor Sly James had talked earlier about seeking a huge bond issue next year for infrastructure, which would have required more money from taxpayers. But he said this week that he knows voters have little appetite for even more tax increases.
“I don’t want to overtax,” he said. “We’ll work on this for a while. Get people back to work ... and see what happens with the economy.”