Vote ‘no’ on Kansas City fire tax renewal

07/11/2014 5:00 PM

07/11/2014 5:30 PM

The Aug. 5 election is too soon to ask Kansas City voters to pass a 20-year, $360 million sales tax renewal for the Fire Department.

The current 15-year, quarter-cent tax does not expire until Dec. 31, 2016. That means the department has a full year to show taxpayers improvements before asking for a tax extension. An election next fall would still be one full year before the current tax expires.

By postponing, the public would be able to:

Know if ambulance response times have improved. Since the merger of ambulance and fire operations in 2010, response times still fall below established standards. Department officials acknowledge they need to be quicker. Emergency medical calls are about 67 percent of those made to the agency.

Determine if the department has deployed firefighters and paramedics more efficiently. A new strategy exists, but it isn’t yet operational.

Review a detailed list of potential improvements to stations and equipment and find out how much of the sales tax pays for firefighters. Today, a strong priority list has not been shared with the public, creating the view that taxpayers are writing a kind of blank check to the department.

Judge if a recently released strategic plan is making progress toward upgrades of the agency’s operations.

Assess whether the department is finding innovative ways to use less expensive equipment to provide medical services, and to explore ways to redeploy firefighters to reduce future equipment budgets.

Unfortunately, Mayor Sly James and the City Council rushed to place the tax extension on the August ballot. They did so without requiring a multi-year spending plan or waiting to see if all the other promised improvements had been made. By contrast, the city provided more details about separate requests for park and police department upgrades financed by recent sales taxes.

Other back-stories make it tough to embrace the tax renewal at this time.

The fire union last year dragged its feet before endorsing needed changes to improve the financial solvency of taxpayer-financed city pension plans. Last month union members put on a media blitz, which failed, to try to renege on an earlier agreement to close a station and keep another with extra staff.

The Fire Department and professional city staff — led by City Manager Troy Schulte — have been unable to do what James and others have insisted: Don’t use the fluctuating sales tax, which eventually expires, to pay for personnel. That sensible approach already applies to the police tax. Adhering to it in this case would free up funds for the Fire Department’s backlogged need to buy new equipment and renovate older fire stations.

And yet about $14 million a year in sales tax receipts is used to pay personnel, partly because the original tax promised 135 additional firefighters.

James says the tax is on the 2014 ballot because the department delivered its strategic plan and the union backed pension changes. In addition, the agency did a good job following through on the 2001 proposal’s pledge to build and rehabilitate fire stations.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi says a tax renewal would help the agency spend $5 million annually to replace aging pumpers and other apparatus. However, the Fire Department has fallen behind on these purchases even with the current tax, mostly because so much of the tax money pays for firefighters.

Because the vote is this August, voters may feel they have no alternative but to endorse the tax again.

We’re not in that camp.

A better move for Kansas City taxpayers, as noted earlier, would be to place the tax renewal on a later ballot.

Rejecting the tax now would not cut the department’s budget by a single dollar. The sales tax is in effect for almost 30 more months.

Waiting to renew it allows the city to build a stronger case. City Hall could be held accountable for effectively deploying personnel, improving ambulance response times and cutting personnel costs from the sales tax revenue stream.

That last point is what James, Berardi, Schulte, fire union leader Michael Cambiano and some council members have said could happen. So spend a year and figure it out. A successful effort might even cut the size of the tax to one-eighth-cent, which the mayor had mentioned as a possibility a year ago.

The Star recommends a “no” vote on Aug. 5. That would not harm the Fire Department while giving it time to keep current promises and provide the public with a more sharply defined plan to fund a vital public service.

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