The Kansas City Council is poised next week to make two major decisions that will affect neighborhood residents and taxpayers for years to come.
As the council passes a $1.5 billion budget on Thursday, it needs to make solid decisions on a pair of issues that have prompted much public and private discussions in the past few weeks.
The elected officials should:
▪ Endorse a sensible plan to knock down more than 800 dangerous buildings.
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▪ Approve a fiscally responsible pay package for the fire union, without giving in to its scare tactics that could lead to a budget-busting mess.
Another big item of interest to all Kansas Citians in the annual budget seems pretty much on autopilot.
The council likely will approve a 13 percent increase in sewer rates and a 3 percent increase in water rates. The large jump on the sewer side will help the city continue a multibillion-dollar program to keep polluted water out of streams and rivers.
The proposal to demolish the dangerous structures was the centerpiece of the budget unveiled in February by Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte.
These buildings have caused blight problems for neighborhoods, many on the East Side, for far too long. They reduce property values and provide cover for drug transactions and other criminal activities. Police Chief Darryl Forté properly has said tearing them down will free up time that his officers can better use to serve Kansas Citians.
The council should not reduce the $10 million bond package that Schulte has said is needed to finance this crucial task. Some council members have discussed setting aside money to rehabilitate some salvageable vacant houses. That’s also an excellent goal, but one reasonable way to do that is to increase the size of the bond issuance.
As Schulte noted in an interview, he would have to find the money to do that. The city also would have to ensure that any extra funds for renovations were funneled to a program that can efficiently use them, mostly in poorer neighborhoods.
True, the city might sell more of its blighted homes for $1 through a new program to individuals — or private organizations could step forward to renovate them. If that happens, the city would have to spend less on demolition, freeing up funds in the bond package to renovate other vacant structures that aren’t falling down.
James and Schulte — after prodding from Forté — correctly decided this was the year to finally try to get rid of the city’s most dangerous structures. Most residents who live near or next to these buildings say they’d prefer them gone, even if it means adding vacant lots in their neighborhoods.
As for the fire union, in recent days a council committee has endorsed a wage plan for Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
This sets up what could be a final vote next Thursday on a labor pact that has been unsettled for about a year.
Unfortunately, the union wants more money than the 2 percent raises it could get through the proposal now on the table. That mirrors the 2 percent raises other city employees are scheduled to get this year.
The union has flexed its political muscles and sent a message to council members in recent weeks. The union has refused to endorse — or contribute funds to — efforts to renew the city’s 1 percent earnings tax on April 5. Yet about three-fourths of the $240 million raised by the tax annually flows to the police and fire departments.
Fire Department leaders, including current chief Paul Berardi, have talked for years about plans to rein in the agency’s overtime. Too often, those efforts have fallen short.
This year the overtime cost to taxpayers could hit $12 million — far higher than the $7 million set aside.
Firefighters contend they don’t have enough people to do the job, so overtime is mandatory.
The real problems, though, are the age-old work rules that fire unions have put in place around the country. They hamstring cities by requiring extra people on fire apparatus and responses by full crews to incidents that could be handled by smaller crews. All of that forces cities to buy more expensive equipment than is truly needed and creates an appearance of short-handedness that could be solved by more efficient use of resources.
These work rules are always fully embraced by Local 42, then promoted behind closed doors with City Council members as “promises” the city must keep to the Fire Department.
No one wants a public safety agency staffed by people working for meager wages. But the top 100 Kansas City Fire Department employees make more than $103,000 a year, including overtime.
City officials should be looking for ways to reduce costs — not to increase them with pay raises that will burden taxpayers long into the future.