What you need to know about Kansas City’s largest GO bond election ever

Kansas City voters will consider the largest general obligation bond request in the city’s history in next Tuesday’s special election. And despite that, election authorities still expect a very small turnout, perhaps 10 percent.
Kansas City voters will consider the largest general obligation bond request in the city’s history in next Tuesday’s special election. And despite that, election authorities still expect a very small turnout, perhaps 10 percent.

Kansas City voters will consider the largest general obligation bond request in the city’s history in next Tuesday’s special election.

And despite that, election authorities still expect a very small turnout, perhaps 10 percent.

Two consequential initiative petitions will also be on the ballot that deal with East Side economic development and marijuana penalties.

That means a small number of voters could decide issues that will affect the city’s taxes and infrastructure policies for decades, along with an important consideration for the city’s criminal code.

Mayor Sly James and the City Council have campaigned hard for the city’s $800 million infrastructure plan contained in Questions 1, 2 and 3.

“It’s composed of the projects and needs that rank at the top of citizen satisfaction surveys,” James told an audience at Tuesday’s State of the City speech. “You have told us for years you want city hall to address streets, sidewalks, flooding and infrastructure.”

Critics argue it’s too big a tax increase, and the city should find other ways to prioritize spending on critical infrastructure projects.

Here are many of the frequently asked questions and answers to the measures on Kansas City’s April 4 ballot:

Q: Why do this massive infrastructure proposal now? Why doesn’t Kansas City already routinely maintain its infrastructure?

A: No one can argue that Kansas City couldn’t find some efficiencies and better ways to spend taxpayer dollars. But the infrastructure backlog is huge, and this $800 million is just a start. Kansas City is the size of New York City, nearly 320 square miles, and while NYC has 8 million people, Kansas City has fewer than 500,000. So we have a huge land mass and a small population and tax base to try to maintain 6,000 lane miles of streets, 4,000 miles of sidewalks, a 13-mile flood control levee system and many buildings that need upgrades, especially to be more accessible to people with disabilities.

Q: What are the infrastructure categories to be tackled?

A: There are three bond questions on the ballot. Question 1 would authorize $600 million to fuel a 20-year program that would dedicate $450 million to repair or upgrade streets and bridges and $150 million to repair sidewalks. Question 2 would generate $150 million to strengthen flood control, and Question 3 would raise $50 million to make federally mandated improvements to improve accessibility of public buildings for people with disabilities and replace the city’s animal shelter.

Q: Why isn’t the city’s 1-cent sales tax for capital improvements enough?

A: The sales tax raises about $80 million each year. About 35 percent, or $28 million, supports the variety of projects selected by the Public Improvements Advisory Committee that include parks, community centers, monuments and public pools. Another 15 percent, or $12 million, supports regular maintenance of city assets such as tree trimming and roof repairs which aren’t eligible for the bonds funding. The city draws from the remaining 50 percent to help pay debt service on existing bonds, leaving limited funds for the kind of reconstruction and upgrades planned for the bond revenue.

Q: How would the sidewalks program work?

A: Initially the city would work on a backlog of about $6 million in repairs already planned. No longer would property owners be paying the cost, and outstanding bills on residents would be dropped. The City Council intends to establish criteria for prioritizing which broken sidewalks get repaired first, considering proximity to schools, employment centers, public transportation, disabled access and other factors. The city would spend roughly two years inspecting all of the city’s sidewalks and then combine that information with the priority system put in place.

Q: What streets, flood control and building projects would be addressed?

The city has not spelled out a guaranteed list of projects because it wants flexibility to address urgent needs as they crop up over the next 20 years. But a council resolution identifies some 65 street and bridge projects that could use the $450 million if it became available. Each of the city’s six council districts has between 15 and 20 percent of the projects on the list. The list includes Green Hills Road in the Northland, Holmes Road in the south and 23rd Street in the east.

As for flood control, the city says it expects to address flooding in Brookside, Westport, the Dodson Industrial District, Swope Industrial District, lingering Turkey Creek issues and levees. The $150 million in flood control dollars are intended to help match $565 million in federal dollars.

The $50 million for buildings includes $14 million for a new animal shelter that would also get about $10 million in private dollars for construction and a maintenance endowment. The other $35 million would help the city address a federal mandate to improve building accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Q: What is the total tax impact of the bond issues?

A: This has been a big area of confusion. The tax increase starts off small but builds over the 20-year life of the infrastucture program. For the average household, with a $140,000 house and $15,000 car, the tax increase in the first year, assuming a 5 percent borrowing rate (which may be lower), would be about $14. Then it grows by another $13 the next two years, then dips further as the years go by. More information and a chart are provided here. At the end of 20 years, that household will have paid about $2,000 more to help pay off the bonds. To keep this affordable, the city expects to issue about $40 million in 20-year bonds each year for 20 years, until 2036. But that final batch of 20-year bonds likely won’t be paid off until 2056, so the property tax for this program will likely continue long past 2036.

Q: What is the level of voter support required?

A: Each question needs 57.1 percent voter approval to pass on April 4.

Q: Do all three questions have to pass for the program to go into effect?

A: The city is urging support for all three questions, but each question stands on its own. Whichever questions, if any, receive sufficient support will take effect.

Q: What do critics say about this? Who is opposing this?

A: Some critics, especially the Freedom Inc. African-American political club, say this is too big a tax increase at this time, especially as the city’s water and sewer charges continue to mount every year. Other critics say the city should spend its tax dollars more efficiently, and dedicate more existing taxes to infrastructure rather than to other priorities such as economic development and large, glitzy projects. They say the City Council has not provided enough specifics on the projects that would be funded by this large sum of tax dollars. Some have suggested the city could sell all or parts of the water or aviation departments to free up dollars for basic infrastructure, although that idea has received little public support in the past.

Q: Who is backing the bond authorization?

A: The political action committee Progress KC has spent more than $900,000 on the campaign for the bond questions. Endorsers include the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, plus the Northland Regional, South Kansas City and Kansas City Hispanic chambers of commerce. Several neighborhood associations have added their endorsements, as have Bridging the Gap, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors and the KC Pet Project. The strongest financial support has come from the Heavy Constructors Association, donating $200,000 to help pass bonds that would generate a lot of projects and jobs. Burns & McDonnell and the Western Missouri & Kansas Laborers District Council each gave $50,000.

Q: Has there been any recent polling?

A: An automated telephone survey of likely voters by Remington Research Group on March 24 and 25 showed sufficient voter support, 62 percent, to pass the program, even with the margin of error. The program had most support in council districts south of the Missouri River, with less support north of the River.

Q: What if this fails?

A: The city will continue trying to maintain its infrastructure with existing tax resources, although city officials say citizens want better infrastructure and that will be difficult to achieve without new tax dollars.

Q: What is Question 4, the Central City Economic Development Sales Tax on the ballot?

A: This is a citizens petition initiative, not sponsored by the City Council. It asks voters citywide to approve a one-eighth-cent sales tax that would raise an estimated $8.6 million annually for 10 years to support economic development projects along Prospect Avenue and the surrounding corridor in east Kansas City.

Q: Who is backing the sales tax?

A: A petition process, supported by Freedom, Inc. in Kansas City, placed the question on the ballot. It is also supported by the Urban Summit, the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Kansas City.

Q: What kind of projects would it fund?

A: Supporters anticipate it would support land acquisition, pre-development costs, planning and blight removal to help spur development. Critics argue there are not enough specifics about what types of projects might be funded.

Q: What is Question 5, the marijuana question the ballot?

A: It asks voters to limit the possible punishment for minor marijuana possession cases to a maximum $25 fine with no possibility of staying in jail.

Q: Who is advocating for the reduction in possible punishment?

A: The Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws led the petition drive that put the question on the ballot. Most supporters hope eventually to see marijuana decriminalized, but see this reduction in punishment as a step in that direction.

Q: Why are some defenders of people facing marijuana charges concerned?

A: They worry that people facing a minor marijuana possession charge will simply pay the small fine and not challenge the case, leaving a potentially damaging conviction on their records. Supporters of the question say they intend to organize attorneys to help defendants in court.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Joe Robertson: 816-234-4789, @robertsonkcstar