Conventional wisdom says the public distrusts government, hates taxes and is disillusioned with political leaders.
Tuesday’s Kansas City election threw conventional wisdom out the window.
Voters said yes, mostly emphatically, to five Kansas City ballot measures, including an $800 million public works program that involves a property tax increase. They also approved a sales tax increase targeted at one small piece of town.
Observers said Wednesday it was a huge win for city government and especially for Mayor Sly James, who put his political legacy on the line for what looked like a very risky infrastructure vote.
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“You have to give big credit to the mayor,” said campaign consultant Steve Glorioso, noting that every campaign mailer featured the mayor front and center, as did several dozen community meetings held in the past 10 weeks on the topic. “It’s pretty apparent the public trusts city government. ... Any tax increase rests on trust.”
Patrick Tuohey, Western Missouri field manager for the Show-Me Institute free market think tank, was an outspoken skeptic about the bond proposal, the 40-year tax time frame and the city’s ability to manage the money wisely. But he, too, thought the vote reflected general confidence in the mayor and a reform-minded council.
“The mailers, I was getting them one per day. They prominently featured the mayor, who is personally popular,” Tuohey said.
James was out of City Hall on Wednesday and unavailable for an interview. But in a statement, he said many other people deserved credit for the successful ballot plan, including City Manager Troy Schulte, city staff and a City Council that recognized the need for action.
Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, praised James “for his tireless work and leadership on this effort,” and said the results were “a powerful statement about the confidence of Kansas City voters in their city’s future.”
Mayoral staffers acknowledge they were nervous about this political gamble. The ballot included three separate questions for streets, flood control, a new animal shelter and other buildings — each one needing supermajority 57.1 percent approval. Plus those property tax questions competed with a separate citizens’ petition initiative for a citywide sales tax increase to benefit East Side development. Many people thought all four questions would fail. But they all passed, as did a fifth measure reducing pot possession penalties.
Glorioso said that, according to precinct results, the strongest support for the infrastructure questions came from a corridor that ran from downtown south past the Country Club Plaza and west of Troost.
It also had strong support in Northeast neighborhoods, far south Kansas City and Platte County. Turnout was higher than 30 percent in a few Southwest Corridor precincts. Meanwhile, turnout and support for the infrastructure questions were less east of Troost.
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner said he was most encouraged by the turnout and the broad swath of support. “People got out of their parochial-ness,” he said. “They were willing to do the animal shelter, and flood control, even though it may not have affected them.”
It helped that there was no well-paid organized opposition, while the pro campaign had nearly $1 million, mostly from construction and civic organizations.
Dan Coffey, another critic of the plan, said the campaign successfully reached out personally to countless voters.
“What helped them was the door-to-door stuff,” Coffey said of the campaign, which touched 80,000 households. Coffey was mystified at how Kansas City voters seem to approve “tax after tax after tax.”
Schulte said Wednesday he thought the vote was “a great testimony to the power of positive thinking and the momentum that the city has.”
Now, he said, it’s time for city staff to deliver on its promises. The city anticipates issuing $40 million in bonds annually over the next 20 years and is already compiling a list of “shovel ready” projects for the first $40 million.
Schulte said that first batch of bonds will likely include the following projects:
▪ $14 million for a new animal shelter in Swope Park, with construction starting this year and completion slated for September 2018. That project will also be supported by $10 million in private donations.
▪ About $13 million for road reconstruction projects throughout the city, such as North Brighton from 58th Street to Pleasant Valley Road; 135th Street from Wornall Road to State Line; Wornall Road from 85th to 89th Streets; and East 22nd and 23rd Street, from Brooklyn to Benton boulevards.
▪ About $7.5 million for sidewalk repairs. The council will soon develop a more complete policy for prioritizing sidewalk needs.
▪ Several million dollars for improvements to the Kansas City Museum, Starlight Theatre and about 400 corner ramps for people with disabilities.
More details should be available by early May.
“We’re ready to get to work,” said Ed DeSoignie, the executive director of the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, which backed the campaign. “Now it’s a matter of putting the work out as soon as possible so citizens can see the city is serious about attacking this backlog of problems.”
Tuesday’s election seemed a stunning sweep to many, but Margaret May saw this day coming.
“I’ve been anticipating this,” said May, who, as executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, has been watching the ups and downs of city revitalization for more than 15 years.
This was the tide that she believed was going to come after so much investment in and around downtown.
“I was one of the few (among the people in neighborhoods crying for more support beyond downtown) who was pleased with the investment downtown,” May said. “I knew it would extend to neighborhoods.”
Tuesday’s vote told her the city overall has come to the same mindset. “It’s time,” she said. “Hopefully now we can see really spectacular progress.”
Gwen Grant was one of those surprised that all of the tax measures were approved.
Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, wanted the eighth-cent sales tax for the Prospect Corridor to pass. But she didn’t think it would prevail, sitting behind the three general obligation bond measures on the ballot, and with little campaign funding.
“I thought voters would be going downhill to Question 4,” she said, “but they all passed. Apparently it was good for the initiative” to be sharing the ballot.
Tuohey said the sales tax support showed Kansas City voters love their city and “understand that the East Side has been left behind.”
“People here want to do the right thing,” Tuohey said. “I think they’re willing to chip in.”
The fact that they all passed eases any post-election friction between factions that supported either the eighth-cent tax or the general obligation bonds but not both.
“We’re OK with it,” said Gayle Holliday of Freedom Inc., whose election guide recommended a yes vote for the sales tax but no votes on the bonds. “We’re just very happy that many of the voters chose to support a focus on one part of the city to create a better overall city.”
The election now throws responsibility on the city that it hasn’t necessarily handled well in the past, said Kansas City Public Library Director Crosby Kemper III.
“This was a plain victory for the mayor and the city manager,” Kemper said. “I think the city has not done a good job with accountability and transparency around these issues, but citizens said, ‘We trust you.’ ”
A similar responsibility falls on the leadership that will manage the revenue for the East Side, he said.
“Now there’s some money,” Kemper said, “and I hope they are thoughtful and that all stakeholders are taken into the process.”
Some voters see a long-term significance in Tuesday’s election.
As Kansas City prepares to commemorate the centennial of World War I, Northland resident Russ Saltzman remembered the story of the city’s zealous support to build the city’s famous memorial right after the war — the kind of enthusiasm he saw renewed in Tuesday’s vote.
“We’re catching up with our history,” Saltzman said. “I think it reveals a very optimistic mood of Kansas Citians.”