Kansas City is thinking about borrowing millions of dollars to pay for a streets-and-sidewalks rebuilding program. It will need the voters’ approval first.
It’ll be a heavy lift. The structure of the plan is still up in the air, and competing interest groups are already jostling for a place on the project list. The city has an enormous backlog of infrastructure needs, but they differ among neighborhoods: some need sidewalks, others need better drainage or street repairs.
Mostly, though, the plan will be tough because it would require a property tax increase. To his great credit, City Manager Troy Schulte has not tried to hide from this fact: If Kansas Citians want better roads and neighborhoods, they will have to vote to tax themselves to do it.
That vote would likely come next spring.
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Interestingly, though, we’ll get a test of voters’ willingness to tax themselves for public works projects in November, when Johnson Countians consider a tax hike to pay for a new courthouse and other expenses on their side of the state line.
The Johnson County proposal is similar to Kansas City’s plan. While Kansas City wants to spend $800 million over 20 years, Johnson County would raise roughly $392 million over 10 years. Of that, $247 million would go for a new courthouse, a coroner’s facility, and interest; the rest, about $145 million, would go to cities in the county to spend as they see fit.
There’s some grumbling about this. A prominent Johnson County politician called me this week to describe the cities’ portion as a “slush fund,” undefined in the ballot language. Supporters of the courthouse project say the set-aside for cities is required by law.
Those same supporters insist the county must have a new courthouse in Olathe. That claim is worth exploring, but for now let’s assume they’re right. Has the county found the best way to pay for it?
Kansas City is talking about raising property taxes to pay for its projects. Johnson County, on the other hand, is asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase instead.
The decision makes political sense. Property taxes are universally disliked, in part because they’re based on a guess of how much a property is worth. Sales taxes are incremental, and hardly noticed. Sometimes they’re paid by people who live outside a community.
But good politics aren’t always good policy. Kansas has one of the highest and most regressive sales tax systems in the country — food isn’t exempt, and in 2015 state lawmakers boosted sales taxes to cover the state’s budget shortfall.
If the courthouse tax passes, a Lenexan spending $150 a week on groceries will pay roughly $730 a year in sales taxes just on those purchases. That’s the equivalent of a month’s worth of food.
By contrast, a $150-a-week Lee’s Summit grocery shopper pays about $275 a year in food sales taxes. And those figures are the same whether the shopper is earning $30,000 a year, or $130,000.
Property taxes, imperfect and disliked as they are, are at least based in part on the taxpayer’s ability to pay — the bigger the home, the bigger the levy.
Kansas City, again to its credit, seems to realize this. The city already collects a regressive sales tax, and a regressive earnings tax. Officials there appear to believe wealthier residents should bear more of the burden for public works projects.
Johnson County, on the other hand, wants all of its residents, regardless of income, to pay even more in the checkout line. We’ll know in November if its residents agree with that approach.