Local Columnists

August 20, 2014

Dave Helling: Perhaps there’s a better way to deal with Kansas City projects

Kansas City splits some of its improvement money six ways every year. It should consider alternatives that concentrate spending but don’t raise taxes.

Kansas City’s important effort to tear down dangerous homes and businesses is struggling, as The Star’s Mike Hendricks reported a couple of weeks ago.

It isn’t because the city isn’t trying. Two years ago, Mayor Sly James set a goal of tearing down 1,000 dangerous structures. Roughly half of them actually came down.

But 800 buildings have since been added to the list. By some estimates it would take $12 million or more to get rid of the backlog of dangerous or abandoned structures in Kansas City.

That kind of money just isn’t available, officials say. There are other competing demands for public resources, and dangerous-building demolition has to get in line like everything else.

It’s a common tale. Because urban areas like Kansas City have so many needs, elected officials often choose to allocate taxpayer money on a piecemeal basis, partially addressing many problems instead of solving just one.

The approach has caused some friction. Residents in the city’s 3rd District, for example, have long argued for a outsized share of capital improvement money — its older sidewalks and parks, they claim, need more attention than those in more affluent areas of the city.

Yet residents in those other districts object, claiming their own infrastructure needs are important too. The result is a rough division of fix-it-up dollars among all six districts, allowing each to partially address issues without resolving any of them.

There is an interesting alternative.

What might happen if the city split up its repair money in a different way? Instead of dividing the cash into six roughly equal parts, funds could be split between just two council districts each year, but on a three-year cycle.

In the first year, Districts 1 and 3 would get all the money. In the second year, Districts 2 and 5 would split the revenue. Year three, Districts 4 and 6 would get theirs. Then the cycle repeats.

Such a system wouldn’t increase taxpayer cost. But it would give each district a bigger chunk of money to fully address a big problem — a disheveled park, a worn-out bridge, even too many dangerous buildings — every third year.

Then, three years later, a district could tackle another concern.

Not everyone would like this approach. Better, they’d say, to buy a few new suits each spring than overhaul the entire wardrobe every 36 months.

If they’re right, it’s likely the city’s dangerous-building backlog will be a permanent feature of its neighborhoods.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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