Kansas City’s 20-year fire sales tax faces lots of questions

05/13/2014 6:59 PM

05/13/2014 6:59 PM

Kansas City’s Fire Department says it needs a fresh stream of revenue to replace and maintain millions of dollars worth of aging firefighting equipment and ambulances.

Hello, taxpayers.

On Thursday, the City Council is expected to pass an ordinance asking voters in August to extend a quarter-cent fire sales tax. It would raise close to $360 million for the department over the 20 years of its life.

Voters endorsed the current tax in August of 2001; it expires Dec. 31, 2016.

Wait, that’s more than two years away. So what’s the rush?

Voters will need detailed answers to that and other legitimate questions before the election.

The Star opposed the current tax 13 years ago, primarily because the department did not offer compelling reasons for its plan to add 135 firefighters. It also was predictable that the extra firefighters would gobble up increasing amounts of tax revenue, leaving less for equipment replacement.

That’s exactly what happened. According to city budgets, the sales tax paid for $2.4 million worth of personnel in 2004. That figure climbed steadily, reaching $9 million annually four years later and $14 million last year.

Now the Fire Department has pumpers and other apparatus that are past their optimal life expectancies. Fire Chief Paul Berardi concedes the agency doesn’t have enough money to replace them. As a result, maintenance costs have risen.

So city officials want taxpayers to step in and bail them out of a problem created 13 years ago.

On Tuesday, Mayor Sly James and chairs of the council committees discussed the sales tax. They eventually backed a sensible plan to pass an ordinance that promises the public that none of the money would be used to pay for personnel this time. Instead, the money would pay for capital upgrades such as stations, facility improvements and new equipment. The general fund would pay for personnel.

Here’s the good precedent: That’s how the Police Department’s sales tax, which voters renewed a few years ago, is structured. It does not pay for police officers.

So what are the capital needs of the Fire Department? That’s another question the sales tax campaign will have to answer.

In recent days, Berardi has unveiled a detailed, ambitious strategic plan for the agency. He calls it a “five-year road map of where we want to go.” It contains many reasonable and high-priority goals, especially in improving the department’s efficiency. Many items are supposed to be done within the next year. But they are just goals, not yet accomplishments.

Can’t voters wait a year, make sure the department carries through on its strategic plan pledges, then decide the fate of the sales tax?

Berardi and City Manager Troy Schulte say that getting the early tax renewal would help the city borrow money to quickly update the fleet, another factor voters will have to weigh.

Berardi also says the Fire Department has earned voters’ trust. To their credit, fire officials have followed a construction plan that resulted in a dozen new or remodeled facilities.

Politics does color this issue.

Council members up for re-election in 2015 would love to have the tax resolved by then, when they will want financial support from the fire union. Having the tax in place also could make 2015 city/union negotiations go more smoothly.

Finally, getting the tax out of the way in August would clear future ballots for other tax proposals, such as one to expand the streetcar line and the earnings tax renewal in early 2016.

The council is rushing this tax to the August ballot, just days after final completion of the Fire Department’s strategic plan. Kansas City voters deserve focused answers from supporters on why it’s so crucial to pass the sales tax more than two years before it expires.

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