Government & Politics

Police and fire departments biggest winners in new KC budget

The Kansas City fire and police departments were the big winners Thursday as the City Council approved a new budget.
The Kansas City fire and police departments were the big winners Thursday as the City Council approved a new budget. Kansas City Star file photo.

Kansas City’s police and fire departments were the biggest winners Thursday as the City Council adopted a new budget heavy on public safety spending.

But Mayor Sly James and a few others said that as police and fire continue to plead for more money, they’ve got to start looking at how to operate more efficiently.

“I agree public safety is important,” James said. “But I realize we have a lot of responsibilities. If the police department and fire department want more money, they need to look internally.”

City Manager Troy Schulte said the budget reflects what Kansas City residents want.

“We’re funding public safety, which is a citizens priority,” he said, adding that the money is mainly for personnel raises and doesn’t mean more police officers and firefighters. “It just means paying for the existing staff.”

Public safety costs are projected to increase from $416 million to $435 million. Of that, the police department budget is slated to grow from $242.5 million this year to $250.8 million next year.

Fire Department spending is projected to grow from $155 million to $166.3 million. Fire overtime is budgeted to grow from $6.5 million to $9.5 million, but Councilman Scott Wagner, chair of the finance department, warned that fire overtime is already slated to be $12 million this year, so next year’s budget number may not be enough.

“What this particular budget shows is there are no rocks to open and find things,” Wagner said. “We’ve got to talk about consolidations within the police department and we also have to talk about overtime and how that’s being done...We’re to a point where we’ve got to deal with them because there’s no place else to go.”

The Star reported earlier this month that a firefighter/paramedic earned $232,105 last year _ more than the city manager and the fire chief, in large part because of overtime. That employee’s overtime came to $156,457. In fact, four fire/paramedic employees each earned more than $100,000 in overtime pay last year.

Wagner said the police department, which is funded by the city but operates as a separate state agency, also needs to look internally for ways to save money. He cited a recent city study showing $38 million in duplication between the city and the police department for functions such as human resources, information technology, finance and fleet. Even consolidating 10 percent would free up nearly $4 million, he said.

In the General Activities budget, public safety spending increases $19 million and consumes 76 percent of general fund operating expenses. All other functions grow by just half that, or $8.8 million.

City services such as parks, trash collection, neighborhood support and leaf and brush collection are projected to remain stable but not increase significantly.

Thursday’s budget adoption comes as residents are also weighing an $800 million infrastructure bond package that will be on the April 4 ballot. But that bond program is separate from this year’s budget plan, which assumes annual infrastructure spending remains at current levels.

Among budget highlights:

▪  Water and sewer rate increases, which have become a major concern for Kansas City residents, continue but at a slightly slower pace. Water rates are expected to rise 1.5 percent and sewer rates 9.5 percent, down from 3 percent and 13 percent increases lasts year. The average household monthly charge is expected to increase from $105.13 in this fiscal year to $110.52 in the next fiscal year.

Schulte said the city will make a major push for more rate relief in the future, by seeking more time to implement a hugely expensive sewer upgrade that is an unfunded mandate from the federal government.

▪  A $10 million, two-year dangerous building demolition program that began in the current fiscal year continues in the new budget plan, as city officials try to eliminate a backlog of ugly abandoned houses.

▪  The city fully funds its pension obligations, but at considerable cost. The city’s pension contribution to four different employee groups is budgeted at $80 million and is slated to go even higher in future years.

▪  The total budget has planned spending of $1.59 billion, an increase of 4 percent over the current fiscal year budget. That includes the Aviation Department, at $180.2 million, and the Water Services Department, at $379.7 million. Those two departments are funded by user fees and are not part of the general services budget.

▪  The General Activities spending, excluding aviation and water, increases 2.7 percent to $1.03 billion. It draws an estimated $29 million from reserves to support current service levels. The city manager said use of special revenue reserves is manageable for a few more years but is not sustainable in the long term.

Details of the budget are at kcmo.gov/finance.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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