March 28, 2013

KC Council adopts no-drama budget

The budget approved Thursday by the City Council provides more money for parks, streets and youth activities but doesn’t yet solve the long-term pension shortfall.

After several years of wrenching spending cuts, the Kansas City Council adopted a $1.3 billion budget Thursday that provides more money for streets, parks, sewer upgrades and youth activities.

“It was a lot less drama than last year, so that’s always good,” Finance Committee Chair Jan Marcason said referring to last year’s contentious budget debates, when firefighters protested layoffs that never materialized.

The main complaints at this year’s budget hearings came from advocates for Kansas City’s bus system. They argued that the City Council was taking money due for the bus system and allocating it to the downtown streetcar project and other transportation needs.

The new budget, which takes effect May 1, provides $46.5 million to the bus system, about $500,000 more than in the current year. But bus officials and supporters said that level of funding isn’t what was promised and requires the bus system to dip into reserves to meet projected expenses.

The council on Thursday agreed to create a special committee to explore, over the next 90 days, how to ensure long-term financial stability for the bus system while continuing to provide $2 million annually for the streetcars.

“We are committed to a quality bus service,” Marcason said, adding that the city also must address massive street repair needs that are a top priority with residents.

The budget boosts spending for community centers, park maintenance and street resurfacing, thanks to a voter-approved sales tax increase. It also raises water and sewer rates 11.5 percent to help pay for federally mandated sewer upgrades and major water system repairs. The average residential water and sewer charge will increase from $74 per month to $82.50 per month.

Mayor Sly James lamented that, despite new revenue from the sales tax and water rate increases, the city still has far more infrastructure needs than money to fix them.

“It would be nice if we had a budget where we actually had an increase of substantial size so we could do some things that need to be done,” James said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case, at least not yet. We’ll continue to try to build more business and to keep our expenses as low as possible and to get some things done.”

Among the budget’s highlights:

• Streets. The proposed budget for street preservation jumps from $3 million to $19 million, enough money to pave more than 180 miles of roads versus 30 miles this year.

• Dangerous buildings. The half-cent park sales tax has generated new money to tear down nearly 200 dangerous buildings, and more money for demolition will flow in the future.

• Crime prevention. The budget adds $300,000 to support crime data collection and mapping of criminal networks in an effort to reduce homicides and hubs of violence.

• Education and innovation. The budget continues funding for the mayor's initiatives on third-grade reading readiness and technological innovation at City Hall.

• Youth programming. James sought, and the municipal judges have approved, a $5 increase to parking violation fines, which James hopes will raise an additional $250,000. That would be added to the budget's $400,000 in funding for weekend summer youth programming to sustain weekend summer clubs in six community centers.

Marcason and other council members acknowledged the budget doesn’t solve the city’s long-term pension liabilities. It boosts total taxpayer support for city and police pensions from $57 million to $63 million funding, but that still leaves a long-term shortfall. Marcason said negotiations on a long-term pension solution continue with the city’s employee bargaining units.

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

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