A sharply divided Kansas City Council couldn’t agree Thursday on ballot language for a November vote on Kansas City International Airport.
That increases the pressure for the council to reach a decision by Aug. 24, its last regular meeting before the ballot deadline for the Nov. 7 election.
Council members appear to all agree that November is the time for the public to finally vote for or against a new single-terminal at KCI. But they can’t agree on the best way to present ballot language to get an affirmative public vote.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields has proposed a measure that would authorize airport revenue bonds for a new terminal, arguing that’s the traditional, and cheapest, method to finance airport improvements.
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But even though both public and private financing are both paid back the same way — with airport and airline revenues, not taxpayer dollars — polling consistently shows that voters oppose airport revenue bonds. Polling shows somewhat more support for private financing.
So Councilwoman Jolie Justus has proposed alternate language that just seeks a new airport terminal paid for by airport revenues. That language allows for some type of private financing, without using airport revenue bonds. That may stand a better chance of passage in the November election.
Shields readily agreed to a one-week hold on her public financing measure, to get a more complete comparison between public versus private financing for a $1 billion airport terminal.
Jolie wanted to move forward with her own ballot measure, but after a tense debate Thursday, the council voted 7-6 to hold Justus’ version for another week as well.
The council also voted 7-6 to postpone a decision until next week on a separate petition initiative, sponsored by construction trades and labor groups, for another airport ballot version that doesn’t use public airport bonds.
Several council members agreed with Shields that another week will provide more information on the best financing approach.
Those voting for the hold were council members Heather Hall, Teresa Loar, Quinton Lucas, Jermaine Reed, Shields, Lee Barnes and Alissia Canady.
Those wanting to complete the ballot language decision Thursday were Scott Wagner, Dan Fowler, Justus, Scott Taylor, Kevin McManus and Mayor Sly James.
Reed argued the council should spend another week trying to reach a unanimous decision on a compromise ballot measure. He warned that the council’s sharp division doesn’t bode well for a successful election.
“A 7-6 vote sends the wrong message,” Reed said. “If we don’t have unity among this council, how can we lead the city?”
But James and Justus argued the issue has been debated to death and it’s time to move forward.
“It’s time to let the voters decide,” Justus said.
“If we only lead when we have unanimous consent, then we aren’t leading,” James said. “Leaders act.”
James also argued the vote timing was better Thursday, because that way the ballot discussion wouldn’t be “held hostage” to people who may disagree with the city’s selection process for an engineering team to build and finance the new airport project.
A selection committee is in the midst of reviewing four separate airport terminal proposals and may pick a winner sometime next week, although that’s uncertain.
Fowler said he was pessimistic, believing that another week’s debate will just continue the rancor and disrespectful arguments that have permeated the council’s airport debates. He said it’s clear from polling that the public doesn’t support public airport bonds, so further debate on that approach is pointless.
But Canady countered that the council’s ultimate decision on ballot language sends an important “message to the community,” and more information next week could help the council get past those divisions.