The Kansas City Council agreed unanimously Thursday to ask voters this summer to approve ballot measures that would address the city’s neglected parks, streets and sewers.
The council approved two questions for the Aug. 7 ballot:
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• To repeal several park property taxes and create a street maintenance fund — if voters approve a 1/2-cent sales tax increase for parks.
• To authorize a $500 million bond, primarily for the city’s federally mandated sewer overhaul project.
The end result Thursday was far more modest than the $1 billion plan for infrastructure that Mayor Sly James proposed earlier this year. But the new approach includes tax reform and for the first time would guarantee a certain level of funding for streets — a city service that residents have said for years is their top priority.
“I am very pleased we are making progress on some important issues,” James said after the council meeting. “We have what I think is a clear and reasonable approach.”
James also said he’s not giving up on his bigger infrastructure vision, but he now has until next April to come up with a more specific proposal.
Question 1 links a 1/2-cent sales tax increase for parks with the elimination of some other park taxes. It also would prohibit the renewal of an unpopular fee of $12.50 per motor vehicle. The sales tax increase is expected to generate about $3 million more than park and community center operations now receive.
In addition, having a sales tax dedicated for parks would free up millions of general fund dollars that currently support parks. The council promised in the ballot language to redirect that money to streets by earmarking no less than 7.5 percent of annual collections of the earnings tax to a street maintenance fund.
City officials said that would amount to about $15 million. This year, the city has budgeted just $8 million for street maintenance.
“This is the first time in the history of this city that we have a dedicated revenue stream for our streets,” Councilman Jim Glover said. “This affects all of the voters, all of the people.”
Council members said it’s been too easy in the past to shortchange streets.
Councilman Russ Johnson said $15 million would allow paving of about 150 lane miles of streets, just a fraction of the city’s 6,400 lane miles. But he said it’s a start.
City Manager Troy Schulte said afterward that he supports the council’s decision, although he added that the city has other huge needs, including underfunded pensions and growing payroll costs. This would be the first time that the earnings tax money has been earmarked for a specific purpose, and creating such a street fund would reduce the city’s flexibility to deal with other budget challenges.
The earnings tax is also subject to voter approval every five years.
The second ballot question would allow the city to issue $500 million in new bonds for sewers. The city’s current sewer bond authority is nearly exhausted. The new bonds would be paid for with sewer rate increases that are already scheduled.