KC council cautious on mayor’s idea for tax vote

Mayor Sly James thinks now is the right time to ask residents for tax increases for infrastructure, but first he’ll have to convince a skeptical City Council.

At a council retreat Friday, James made a strong pitch for increasing property and sales taxes to address what citizens constantly say is their biggest frustration: crumbling streets, bridges, sidewalks and other infrastructure.

“They want to see something done,” James said of the public’s wish to see that huge maintenance backlog addressed.

He is proposing putting three questions on the Aug. 7 ballot. Those ballot measures would halt several unpopular park property taxes and a vehicle license fee, but only if voters pass both a half-cent sales tax for parks and stormwater improvements and a property tax increase to fund $500 million in general obligation bonds for streets, sidewalks, bridges and other neighborhood upgrades.

To put the issues on that ballot, the City Council must approve the ballot questions by May 24, and several council members expressed doubts Friday.

“I just don’t think there is a more unpopular tax than a property tax,” said Councilman John Sharp, noting that the general obligation bond proposal would require 57 percent voter approval. “I have a real concern that will be an awfully tough sell.”

Sharp said that he thought voters might pass the sales tax, which requires a simple majority, but that it’s more risky to put two tax increase questions on the same ballot.

“That may be a tax too far,” he said.

Council members Ed Ford, Jim Glover and Melba Curls also expressed concerns about whether voters would embrace a tax increase, especially while so many people are still struggling financially.

Glover emphasized that he needed to study the proposal more before he made up his mind, and several other council members said they needed more information before taking a position.

James said he was open to suggestions if anyone has a better proposal. But he doesn’t think the council should let so much of the city’s aging infrastructure continue to deteriorate.

“We can’t continue to run away,” he said.

Russ Johnson, chairman of the council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the city must find more money for infrastructure. He said that at the current spending rate, it would take the city more than 200 years to repave all its streets.

A joint council committee will debate the mayor’s ballot proposal at 8:45 a.m. Thursday.