Kansas City has done plenty to bolster its high-profile amenities in recent years. Taxpayers have kicked in to expand Liberty Memorial, greatly improve the zoo, renovate the Truman Sports Complex, build the Power & Light District and construct a brand new streetcar line.
Yet all along the way, a familiar refrain has been heard in many parts of the community — from the southwest corridor to the East Side to the Northland: When is City Hall going to get more serious about providing residents with better basic services?
That wish list includes more road repairs, safer bridges, flood control projects and upgraded public buildings, along with smoother sidewalks and a lot more of them.
As it turns out, voters may get the chance in April to approve a general obligation bond package that would support spending $800 million over the next 20 years on the city’s infrastructure needs and dealing with deferred maintenance of basic assets.
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One more thing. This plan would come with a small property tax increase that would grow over the next two decades, as about $40 million worth of projects are added to the list each year.
Given the sheer size of the possible ask of voters — and certainly because it could require higher taxes — Mayor Sly James, the City Council and City Manager Troy Schulte and his staff need to put together the best possible list for the public.
They are working behind the scenes on it right now, with this wise warning from Schulte: “How do we keep from making this thing a Christmas tree?”
Recent interviews with Schulte and Joni Wickham, James’ chief of staff, reveal there’s important agreement for now on the bones of the proposal.
▪ It needs to be big (and $800 million would help accomplish that) and deal with the city’s long-term needs, not just a few over the last years of James’ final term in office.
▪ The bigger projects that do get included should require plenty of private-sector funding before taxpayers are put on the hook for them. Those ought to include an already-rumored aquarium at the Kansas City Zoo.
▪ The bulk of the money ought to be used for basic infrastructure that includes important city services provided to residents.
Some people would love new sidewalks in their neighborhoods, for instance, while others are desperate for projects that will stop the flooding of their houses and yards.
Schulte says a huge sidewalk upgrade plan that could reach $300 million has been discussed, especially since a lot of residents want safer pathways for their children to get to schools around the city.
Flood control in Brookside and on the West Side is important, too.
Money to build roads in the fast-growing part of the city north of the Missouri River also could be part of the bond package.
Wickham makes the reasonable point that some of the money should focus on services that need to be improved, according to citizen satisfaction surveys. Better roads are always high on that list.
But before anyone goes to the polls, much needs to happen.
City Council members will weigh in with what they consider to be basic projects.
The city staff must prepare solid cost estimates for how much could get done with $40 million annually, especially if the city wants the authority to issue bonds over the next 20 years.
James and the council also have to discuss whether a smaller bond package of, say, 10 years at $400 million might be more politically palatable.
The April date is circled on City Hall’s calendar because it would take 57.1 percent of voters to approve bonds at that time. At other major election dates in 2017, the threshold would rise to 66.7 percent under an onerous Missouri law on bond issues.
James has spent the first five years of his term in office as a cheerleader for improving Kansas City’s fortunes.
He’s had some major successes; the downtown streetcar line comes to mind as does a 2012 tax increase for road repairs and adequate park funding.
He’s had some good fortune; check out the Royals’ city-inspiring 2014 and 2015 World Series runs.
And he’s suffered setbacks, as when voters rejected a major streetcar expansion.
James also for several years has known that a large bond issue could cement his legacy as a mayor who took care of basic services while in office, not just leading the charge for glitzy, big-ticket items.
City Hall’s elected officials and staff members need to use the next several months to develop the best possible bond proposal for citizens to consider in 2017.