Mayor Sly James and Kansas City Council members have said for months they needed to craft a workable plan for voters to address the city’s huge infrastructure problems.
Saying it was one of their top priorities for 2017, they promoted it as a signature achievement to build public trust, improve citizen satisfaction and help transform the city.
But with so much at stake, haggling over rival plans Wednesday threatened to scuttle chances for a consensus Thursday, the last day to approve ballot language for the April election.
Because the mayor and council have waited until the last minute to pass ballot language, they will need nine of 13 votes to advance the proposal Thursday for discussion. And it wasn’t clear Wednesday afternoon whether they could get that number of votes.
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If it is discussed, it would take seven votes to pass.
“We had a meeting this morning that seemed to go nowhere,” Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said Wednesday afternoon, describing a meeting with several council members, representatives of the mayor’s office, and construction officials.
Some still hold out hope the council will find a late-breaking solution.
“It’s like making sausage,” Councilwoman Teresa Loar said of the intense behind-the-scenes conversations to get the necessary votes. “I think we’ll shake it out.”
Since last September, the city manager and mayor have focused on a plan to seek voter approval in April to borrow $800 million over 20 years. Despite several months of council debate, disagreements persist over how much of that $800 million to spend on various infrastructure categories: roads, sidewalks, bridges, flood control and public buildings.
Just last week, two rival concepts crystallized — one from the mayor and the other from Councilman Quinton Lucas. Neither appears to have nine votes.
The mayor’s plan calls for three ballot questions: $600 million for roads, bridges and sidewalks; $150 million for flood control; and $50 million for a new animal shelter (replacing a hopelessly outdated facility) plus other public building improvements to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
Lucas’ version would have four questions: $550 million for roads, some adjacent sidewalks and bridges; $75 million for neighborhood sidewalks; $25 million for the animal shelter and other ADA work; and $150 million for flood control. Lucas said he’s willing to compromise and tweak those dollar numbers.
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, Councilman Scott Taylor and a few other council members said they were solidly in the mayor’s camp. They think his plan provides more money for a comprehensive sidewalk replacement program, already shows strong polling support, and has bond counsel approval. Wagner said he wants at least $150 million for sidewalks, and the mayor’s plan provides that.
“We’re not planning for next year, we’re planning for the next 20 years,” said Councilman Dan Fowler, adding that he believes the mayor’s plan “allows for more options.”
Several neighborhood leaders and AARP of Missouri have written letters to the council urging support for the mayor’s plan.
Lucas said part of his motivation in offering a different plan is to provide as much specificity as possible for different infrastructure categories.
Lucas, Shields and Councilman Lee Barnes argue the mayor’s plan may spend too much on sidewalks. They said their constituents question the value of sidewalks to truly transform blighted neighborhoods.
“I had somebody who told me this, ‘A new sidewalk in front of a vacant lot still doesn’t really do that much for you,’ ” Lucas said.
Lucas’ plan may get the nod from the Heavy Constructors, an influential organization that could help fund the election campaign and that wants as much money as possible for roads. Shields said she too believes road reconstruction, not sidewalks, is one of the best long-term investments the city can make.
Several council members, including Loar, Heather Hall and Alissia Canady said Wednesday they were still weighing the two versions. Some further compromise may be possible to reconcile the two plans.
But if the council can’t get this worked out, it will likely have to wait another year to try again. That’s because the April general obligation bond election requires a 57.1 super-majority approval — itself a high bar for success. Later in the year would require an even bigger margin, 66 percent, which could be impossible.
In an emailed statement, James urged his colleagues to get their act together. He said Kansas City is in this fix because too many past elected leaders “felt it was easier to kick the can down the road.”
“I would encourage my colleagues on the council to remember that tomorrow’s vote is not about them,” James said. “Tomorrow’s vote is about the people across this city that need their leaders to take action and make a commitment to our city’s infrastructure we rely so heavily on.”