Kansas Citians will be bombarded in the weeks to come with excellent reasons to renew the city’s 1 percent earnings tax on April 5.
The tax raises almost $230 million a year. It supplies about 70 percent of the funds needed for core public safety functions, especially to put police officers on the street and firefighters on ambulances and fire trucks.
If the tax fails, the city would lose 10 percent of the funding each year — roughly $30 million annually — until the revenues were wiped out a decade from now.
True, the city could ask voters to endorse higher sales and property taxes to help fill the gap. However, state law limits how high those taxes can go, and the city does not have enough authority to raise anywhere close to $230 million a year.
The city has prepared a chart showing the possible calamitous effects of a “no” vote. They include the loss of 810 uniformed police and 550 firefighters, more than half the forces of both departments. The total city workforce could be sliced by 2,240 — about 30 percent.
Critics contend this is sky-is-falling rhetoric. The city could be more efficient with its funds, they argue, and it has deep pockets elsewhere to make up for the cuts.
We’re all for efficiency at City Hall and will continue to beat that drum.
But the idea that $230 million worth of “efficiencies” can be wrung out of a $530 million general fund budget is sheer poppycock. As is the notion that secret large sources of cash exist at 12th and Oak streets.
The recession in the last decade led to the elimination of almost 700 city positions, most in non-public safety roles. The city this year gave no pay increases to its almost 7,000 employees. Annual raises for the next four years are scheduled to be in the reasonable range of 2 to 2.5 percent.
Still, the city has managed to continue receiving strong annual citizen satisfaction reports. Officials are using better data to guide them in providing public services. For example, City Manager Troy Schulte and top administrators in non-public safety agencies have scrambled to work with private sector groups, such as in animal control.
Earnings tax enemies contend that a city with a total budget of $1.4 billion can sustain losing this source of funds.
That’s grossly misleading. Huge chunks of the city budget are strictly allocated to other priorities. The city’s water, sewer and aviation funds account for $500 million of overall spending and by law can’t be used to fill in the gaps if the earnings tax goes away.
Debt service of more than $115 million also can’t be tapped. Nor can a capital improvements program that spends tens of millions each year.
Kansas Citians are in this position because St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, an ardent foe, convinced Missourians in 2010 to force Kansas City and St. Louis every five years to vote on extending their earnings taxes. Kansas City went over the top in 2011 with a 78 percent approval at the polls.
Supporters will be rallying voters to turn out in similar numbers to extend the tax, an action that is the city’s highest priority in 2016.