Kansas City has been bone dry this winter, but Westport business manager Justin Luikart still vividly recalls the flash flooding last Aug. 26 that swamped cars on Westport Road and in the parking lot outside Freebirds World Burrito.
“It was scary for the people who were trapped out there,” Luikart said recently. “People had to swim to our front door.”
That same Friday night, in a beautiful 103-year-old home just east of Brookside Boulevard, Lea Murphy had 14 inches of standing water in her basement. She loves her neighborhood and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but every time it rains hard, she has a big cleanup hassle in her basement.
“We’ve had three floods in two years,” she said.
Flooding routinely swamps not just Westport and Brookside but also Line Creek neighborhoods in the Northland, Southwest Boulevard, the East and West Bottoms and other residential and business districts throughout the city. And while the city chips away at its flood control projects, they can take more than 50 years to complete, like the one finally finished last year on the lower Blue River.
So flood control is part of Kansas City’s comprehensive infrastructure bond proposal on the April 4 ballot. Question 2 on the ballot seeks taxpayer support for $150 million in flood control bonds.
Mayor Sly James says his own daughter had to crawl through her car’s sunroof last summer when flooding affected the area near 31st and Roanoke. “That resonates with me,” James said, arguing that it’s time for Kansas City to get serious about completing flood control projects like Turkey Creek.
City Manager Troy Schulte said it’s also an economic development issue, as businesses flee flood-prone areas like Gardner Avenue in the East Bottoms. And it’s a social justice issue, to improve Brush Creek east of the Paseo, just as Brush Creek near the Country Club Plaza has been enhanced.
“I want to get those types of things done,” Schulte said.
The April 4 bond package seeks voter support for three questions to borrow and spend a total of $800 million on basic infrastructure over the next 20 years. Question 1 has $600 million for streets, bridges, and sidewalks. Question 3 has $50 million for a new animal shelter and other building improvements. The entire package requires a modest property tax increase. The city expects to issue $40 million in bonds each year between now and 2036, but the taxes and final payoff of those last bonds could persist until 2056.
Question 2 is especially appealing, James and Schulte say, because local flood control dollars can leverage up to $565 million in federal flood control money that U.S. Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and Sam Graves got included in a water resources law. If the city can’t come up with those local matching funds, they say, Kansas City may not get the federal dollars.
Some critics wonder why the water department can’t do this with existing resources. They point to mounting water and sewer bills as one of the city’s most burdensome costs. The average household water services bill later this year is projected to reach $110 per month.
Freedom Inc., an African-American political club, is one of a few groups that have come out against all three bond questions, including the flood control piece.
“We are at the point where we didn’t feel we should ask our citizens to increase their property taxes right now,” said Gayle Holliday, spokeswoman for Freedom Inc. “And the biggest concern we had was people are already paying a pretty high water bill. That was one of the largest complaints that we received.”
Water Services Director Terry Leeds explains the current charges are mostly paying for massive water main and sewer infrastructure upgrades. Yes, the city also has a small stormwater fee of about $2.50 per household on every monthly bill, but that cannot be used for flood control. It can only be used for catch basins, cleaning and other maintenance, and isn’t enough to cover those annual costs anyway.
Lea Murphy and her neighbor Shannon Buster have each lived on East 55th Terrace just east of Brookside Boulevard since the early 2000s.
Buster, a civil engineer, says that as the city has chipped away at upstream flood control measures over the past decade, flooding in their block has actually gotten worse. They say it’s particularly damaging for the Crestwood Shops employees and business owners. Part of the $150 million in flood control bond funding is intended for that final phase of the Brookside project, requiring a giant interceptor sewer.
“The city needs to finish the job,” Buster said.
David D. Thompson, who lives at 62nd and Pennsylvania in the Greenway Fields Homes Association, agrees. He’s had 10 inches of water in his basement four times since 2013. Everything in his basement — including the washer-dryer, furnace and water heater — is up on blocks so it won’t get wet. Two pumps get plenty of action, and then he’s left cleaning up a mess of sludge after the water recedes.
Businesses are affected too. Kim Kimbrough, executive director of the Westport Regional Business League, said several businesses flood fairly regularly. The worst, he said, was last August when nearly 100 cars were damaged and some people had to be rescued.
Mayor James realizes many Kansas City residents don’t endure flooding. But many do, he said, and it also affects many city jobs.
Scott Brown, a board member with the Kansas City Industrial Council, said that business group has endorsed Question 2 even though its members will also pay the property tax increase needed to fund it.
“There’s 70,000 people represented by the businesses that KCIC advocates for,” Brown said. He said the group’s focus in this instance is making sure the city’s levees are protected.
The list of potential projects is not final, and Kansas City’s flood control needs far exceed $150 million. The city still must cobble together other funds to complete key projects. But city officials say the bond funding is a good start.
Among examples of projects:
▪ Lake of the Enshriner’s improvements on the east end of Brush Creek.
▪ Brookside storm drainage. Earlier, less expensive phases upstream have helped some neighborhoods, but the final phase requires a giant storm sewer, to halt basement and street flooding from water roaring down from upstream.
▪ Westport/Mill Creek drainage. Detention areas, increased pipe sizes and improved overland paths could help alleviate flooding that fills roads, parking lots and buildings along the old creek path.
▪ Line Creek improvements. Channel stabilization and modification are planned along the East Fork of Line Creek.
The city also hopes to use some local money to leverage hundreds of millions of federal dollars for such projects as Turkey Creek Basin flood control; the Dodson Industrial District flood wall near 85th Street and Bruce R. Watkins Drive; and flood relief in the Swope Park Industrial Area, a 50-acre business park along the Blue River.
Thompson, the Greenway Fields resident, said the tax increase will be worth it to leave a safer city, with fewer flooding issues, for future generations.
“What are we going to do for those residents that are younger?” he asks. “What are we going to leave them?”