Local Columnists

Haggling over $800 million bond package threatens voter approval in Kansas City

Kansas City voters may be asked this spring to borrow $800 million for public improvements to help fix the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
Kansas City voters may be asked this spring to borrow $800 million for public improvements to help fix the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

We’ll know Thursday if Kansas City voters will be asked to borrow $800 million to help fix the city’s crumbling infrastructure.

The City Council is considering the largest general obligation bond issue in city history. Streets would be repaired, officials say. Floods would be controlled. Bridges would be built.

Oh, and property taxes would go up.

Beyond those vague outlines, though, we still don’t know precisely what will be included in the plan submitted to voters.

And that’s a huge political problem. In fact, some insiders say, last-minute confusion and disagreement over the shape of the package appear to have seriously damaged its chances at the polls in April.

Even in a perfect world, getting the OK for a major bond issue would be difficult. It takes 57 percent of voters to approve the borrowing — a high bar, particularly in a low-turnout spring election.

And a property tax increase is always a tough sell in a city with a relatively high tax burden. According to one study, Kansas City’s local taxes are the 16th highest in the nation for a family earning $75,000 a year — higher than taxes in Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, D.C.

But the city’s leadership has made a tough situation tougher by arguing about the bond plan for months. Some wanted an $800 million, 20-year package; others said 10 years, $600 million. One ballot question became three — new rules required splitting the ballot, advisers said.

Some council members wanted a specific project list; others argued for “flexibility.”

Then, at the 11th hour, councilman Quinton Lucas proposed an alternative to Mayor Sly James’ plan — the same amount of money would be involved, but divided different ways. More confusion.

Some of this is unavoidable. Whenever a city contemplates $800 million in public improvements, there will be disagreements over how to spend the cash.

But the disputes should have been hashed out over the summer and fall, local politicos insist. Instead, the late chaos surrounding the package now makes the campaign more difficult: Voters usually say no when they’re confused about an issue, as now seems to be the case.

Campaign fundraising is behind schedule. Organized opposition to the measure is a possibility. A sales tax increase for East Side development is also set for the April ballot, further clouding the picture.

Some are blaming James for the breakdown. Others say a recalcitrant City Council is responsible. It’s possible disappointed council members might actively oppose passage if the measure makes it to the ballot, another potential blow.

Bond issue supporters point to a favorable poll, taken in recent weeks, that suggests the measures still have a chance. And James remains a popular figure in most of the community — he’ll lead the campaign for passage.

But turning that personal support into a yes vote for a major tax increase for sidewalks and streets will be a heavy lift.

There’s been some talk of pulling the plan from consideration entirely. That seems unlikely, but if the council puts the issue before voters this April, and voters say no, another try a year from now is almost a certainty.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc