Government & Politics

KC Council overcomes differences to adopt big infrastructure bond proposal

Kansas City Council members discussed details of a giant infrastructure bond proposal before the council approved final ballot language Thursday.
Kansas City Council members discussed details of a giant infrastructure bond proposal before the council approved final ballot language Thursday.

They haggled until almost the last possible moment.

But Kansas City Council members put aside their differences and reached a compromise Thursday on one of their top priorities — a ballot proposal to pay for a generation’s worth of infrastructure improvements.

Voters on April 4 will decide on a plan to borrow and invest $800 million over 20 years, which would be the largest general obligation bond authorization in city history. Requiring a property tax increase, it would pay for road, sidewalk, flood control, bridge and public building projects. The money would be spent in increments of about $40 million a year.

“This is a one-chance opportunity. We have to get this passed,” Councilman Scott Taylor told his colleagues Thursday afternoon before they approved the ballot language.

The council waited until the deadline day, Thursday, to adopt ballot language for the April 4 election. They had deliberated for months about how to divvy up the $800 million among various infrastructure categories. An argument in the past week over how much to invest in roads, sidewalks and buildings threatened to scuttle any agreement.

But on Thursday, Mayor Sly James and council members put aside their differences, agreed on the various pots of money and reached a unanimous decision.

Following intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, James prevailed with most of what he wanted. He acknowledged the debate had involved a “very robust process” but said it had ended in “a great result” that benefits residents across the city.

The plan has three ballot questions:

▪ Question 1 calls for $600 million for streets, bridges and sidewalks. A nonbinding companion resolution clarifies that a maximum of $150 million would be spent on sidewalks, leaving $450 million for roads and bridges. Sidewalk supporters had hoped for $200 million or even $300 million, but road builders questioned that funding level.

▪  Question 2 provides $150 million for flood control.

▪ Question 3 provides $50 million for public buildings, including but not limited to a new animal shelter to replace a woefully outdated facility at 4400 Raytown Road. The shelter is expected to receive about $14 million in taxpayer dollars, plus millions in private donations.

Question 3 is also expected to provide about $35 million for other buildings needing upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. James said it’s important for voters to realize the city isn’t spending more money on animals than it is on people with disabilities.

“We didn’t pull these things out of the air,” James said, noting that these are improvements that residents have pleaded for every year in citizen satisfaction surveys.

The biggest council squabble in recent weeks was over how much to invest in roads versus sidewalks. Some construction officials and a few council members wanted at least $500 million for roads. They said that’s consistently a top citizen priority and one of the best long-term investments Kansas City can make.

But James, other council members and many neighborhood leaders countered that sidewalks are equally important for quality of life and to preserve decent property values.

On Thursday morning, Councilman Lee Barnes suggested reducing sidewalk spending to $120 million — about $6 million per year for 20 years, or $1 million per year per council district.

Councilman Kevin McManus said more money for sidewalks would be crucial for voter support in his district, south Kansas City.

“We’ve got to get something done,” he said.

Councilman Scott Wagner, who has studied the city’s crumbling sidewalk problem for several years, also said $120 million wasn’t sufficient. He had wanted at least $200 million but was willing to accept $150 million.

James also said he wouldn’t support anything less than $150 million. That appeared to turn the tide on the debate.

Councilman Quinton Lucas, who in recent days had offered a plan B that differed from the mayor’s approach, said the council’s “somewhat difficult but always fruitful conversations” had ended successfully.

“I’m almost in love with this now,” Lucas said.

A council resolution spells out in much greater detail than the ballot language how the money might be spent in each infrastructure category.

It includes an Exhibit A that lists 65 major roadway improvements throughout the city, including Holmes Road in south Kansas City; North Brighton in the Northland; Blue River Road landslide issues; 63rd Street; Rockhill Road; Wornall Road reconstruction; and Prospect Avenue for the Prospect MAX rapid bus system.

The resolution also calls for a “community benefit agreement” that supports local workforce development and employment opportunities for projects exceeding $300,000. To promote accountability, it calls on the city manager to provide an annual report summarizing the bond proceeds spent and projects completed each year.

Voter approval may be a challenge, because a general obligation bond request in April requires a supermajority of 57.1 percent.

It’s also a challenge because, as the council has candidly told residents, this will mean a property tax increase. The finance department has said that, for the owner of a $140,000 home and a $15,000 car, the increase will average $8 a year, but will add up cumulatively over time, to a total of about a $160 annual increase at the end of 20 years.

Platte County resident Bill Super, who has followed this topic closely, pointed out Thursday that’s just an estimate. He said people need to realize that a modest increase is contingent on the city paying off other bonds over time. It also assumes some modest citywide assessment increase over time.

The April ballot will be crowded with other questions as well:

▪ A citizens initiative seeking voter approval for a 10-year, one-eighth-cent citywide sales tax increase to be targeted at East Side economic development.

▪ A citizens petition initiative seeking to reduce the fine and eliminate jail time for anyone possessing 35 grams or less of marijuana.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

The rebuilt bridge at Grand Boulevard and Truman Road opened Friday morning. It underwent an emergency closure on May 6 because of structural problems.