KC Fire Department’s report card doesn’t yet merit $370 million tax

07/16/2014 2:03 PM

07/16/2014 5:39 PM

The Kansas City Fire Department’s request for a 20-year, $370 million sales tax renewal is an important issue on the Aug. 5 ballot.

But it does not deserve to be there, 29 months before the current quarter-cent tax expires.

A close look at a report card on where the department stands in 2014 provides good reasons for voters to wait until 2015 — or even 2016 — to decide whether they really should extend the tax.

The grades are based on years of watching the agency’s operations, a review of how the city has used the present tax and evaluating comments about the renewal by Fire Chief Paul Berardi, fire union president Michael Cambiano, Mayor Sly James, City Manager Troy Schulte and others.

Reason for holding the election in 2014: F

Berardi says the money will help the department align with City Hall’s need to put together five-year budget plans. Cambiano says he doesn’t want the fire tax to bump up against the city’s request in 2016 to renew the earnings tax.

However, that tax is going to be a slam-dunk “yes” vote, as it was in 2011, because voters understand losing the E-tax would decimate public services. The E-tax and fire tax stand on their own merits. As for planning, city officials always want more money guaranteed by taxpayers; that’s not a sufficient reason to endorse a tax more than two years early.

Complete key parts of 113-page strategic plan: Incomplete

Berardi and department officials capably put together an impressive report with 13 goals and 79 objectives earlier this year. They include “high priority” ways to improve customer service, medical protocols, professional development and operations within six months to a year.

However, the plan has not been carried out in any substantial way. Voters can wait to evaluate the agency’s progress in reaching its worthwhile goals.

Put in place a new deployment model for personnel, equipment: Incomplete

The strategic plan labels this a “high” priority and says it will take 12 to 24 months to achieve. The Fire Department needs to be as efficient as it can, given the considerable resources taxpayers pour into it every year.

However, voters need to see evidence over the next year whether the agency has come up with solid deployment models.

Ambulance response times: C

Responding to the huge number of medical emergencies ought to be at the top of list for being done quickly and correctly, especially given the department’s strong-arm 2010 takeover of ambulance service.

However, as Berardi acknowledges, ambulance response times are “not at all where we want to be,” while adding they are improving. Wait a year for more evidence that the agency can get better.

Use of the original sales tax: C

The current quarter-cent tax has provided essential funds to make needed upgrades to fire stations and to build new ones, too.

However, the bloating of force that occurred by adding more than 100 firefighters with tax revenues created a huge fiscal challenge. Salaries and benefits have eaten up more and more of the revenues, now topping $13.5 million a year.

Proposed use of extended tax: D

All city officials seem to agree that the tax shouldn’t be used to pay for so much in personnel costs. So take time to meet that challenge. That will help determine whether the agency really needs a quarter-cent tax, or perhaps something less.

A “no” vote next month does nothing to harm current or even future operations of the department. It will still get $18.5 million a year at least through Dec. 31, 2016.

Rejecting the tax will challenge Berardi, Cambiano and other firefighters to keep their promises to improve the agency’s operations to better serve the public.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at YaelTAbouhalkah.

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