Government & Politics

As Kansas agonizes over budget, Wyandotte County ponders $12 million annual windfall

The early payoff of bonds issued to finance the development of Village West will begin adding $12 million per year to the county’s budget in 2017.
The early payoff of bonds issued to finance the development of Village West will begin adding $12 million per year to the county’s budget in 2017. File photo

While the Kansas Legislature was agonizing over tax increases and bandaging its budget woes, Wyandotte County residents were brainstorming ways to spend the fruits of a once-in-a-lifetime windfall.

The early payoff of bonds issued to finance the development of Village West will begin adding $12 million per year to the county’s budget in 2017, and the debate over funding a long list of needs has already begun.

Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland sparked the conversation at his first stop on a countywide tour last month, an event designed to solicit ideas from the public on what to do with the haul. The second meeting is coming up Tuesday night.

Nearly 100 people filed into the gym at Northwest Middle School on May 26 to voice their opinions.

They asked for cleanup of vacant properties and infrastructure improvements in the urban core, a bump in funding for public safety departments and across-the-board reductions in the county’s property tax, to name a few suggestions.

The mayor noted less visible needs, including a cost-of-living raise for Unified Government employees and refilling balances of funds drained during the recession, and emphasized that the money wouldn’t be a panacea for all of the county’s wishes. The $12 million is only 4 percent of the Unified Government’s $300 million annual budget, after all.

But Holland thinks the windfall from paying off Kansas State Tax Revenue (STAR) bonds has potential to make some tangible difference in Wyandotte County.

“We need signature wins,” Holland said in an interview last week. “We need to lower property taxes, we need to refill some fund balances, but we also need to put this money where people can see it.”

Some consider a lower property tax assessment an obvious win.

Those who remember Kansas City, Kan., before the Legends outlet stores and Kansas Speedway recall a promise that sales tax revenue would be used to put a dent in the property tax rate, which remains among the highest in the metropolitan area.

Carol Marinovich, former mayor and county executive who led the effort to consolidate the city and county in the late 1990s, said a lower mill levy was a key selling point for Village West when she was in charge.

The loss of 30,000 residents in the 1980s had forced city government to raise property taxes even as property values plummeted.

“We had two options, cut services and raise taxes, and we did both for years,” she said.

But consolidation and retail development out west promised a trove of sales tax money that would one day lighten the property tax burden and redevelop the urban core.

“What we envisioned at that time was using a large amount of those sales tax dollars for lowering the property tax rate,” she said. “To start spending and put nothing toward property tax relief would be a mistake.”

Mayoral candidates agreed last year, with three of five candidates voicing their support for substantial rollbacks, including Holland.

But there’s also concern that a property tax cut would have little impact in everyday lives.

If, for example, $1 million were put toward lowering the mill levy, the owner of a $100,000 house would see about $13 in annual savings, county manager Doug Bach said. That $1 million also would have to be spent in perpetuity, meaning there would be less cash for projects down the road.

“It’s important to factor in how much $1 million means for projects versus a $13 savings for a homeowner,” he said.

The money needed for repairs and projects could easily swallow the entire $12 million boost. In 2017, the capital maintenance program includes courthouse and fire station repairs, road improvements and park landscaping.

For some Wyandotte Countians living east of Interstate 635, especially in downtown Kansas City, Kan., tangible improvements would be more than welcome.

Downtown resident Rick Deane knows the bonds have been successful in building a sprawling outlet mall, a NASCAR speedway and a 25,000-seat home for Sporting KC. But he hasn’t seen a lot of improvement closer to home.

“The Unified Government is doing something right out west,” Deane said. “But I’d like to see a little more ubiquitous investment, I guess.”

Marvin Robertson echoed Deane’s concern: “There’s a lot going on, but it doesn’t feel like the people in the (northeast) corridor ever see any of it.”

It’s easy to see why.

Poverty rates reach 42 percent in the northeastern part of the county, according to recent census bureau estimates. Median household incomes range from $40,000 to $70,000 out west, but numbers get cut in half east of I-635. The residential vacancy rate in the Argentine district is 25 percent, more than double the highest figure on the other side of the county.

“If you still have those abandoned homes on your block, you have the view that nothing’s happened,” Marinovich said.

Holland understands the impatience.

“They’re tired of hearing the talk, they want to see a shovel in the ground,” he said.

A couple million dollars in economic incentives to draw an Aldi downtown would satisfy Scott Murray, president of the Turtle Hill Neighborhood Association. A one-stop shop for groceries would augment the urban core’s array of ethnic markets and convenience stores.

“Having a grocery store and a restaurant nearby would be a big deal,” Murray said. “A lot of people out here do not have cars and don’t have access to cars, and that’s been hard for them.”

In interviews, several commissioners from the eastern side also had ideas on how to spend the windfall.

Brian McKiernan, who represents the downtown area, outlined a plan to put $6 million toward lowering property taxes, $3 million toward balancing budgets strained by recession spending and the rest toward spurring economic development, whether that means closing deals with a new business or repairing decrepit infrastructure.

Gayle Townsend, who represents the area north of downtown, said she would be listening to what her constituents want, but also mentioned assigning parts of the $12 million to individual districts, whose representatives could spend the money on the needs of communities they know best.

Townsend said she would consider using some of her district’s portion to fund a program for seniors that’s about to expire, for example.

Ann Murguia, who represents the Argentine area, said beyond obvious property tax relief, the Unified Government should use the money to pursue public-private partnerships that would provide proof that money can be made east of the Legends.

“We should use some of that money to get buildings ready for a private partner to come in immediately at a low cost,” Murguia said. “There aren’t a lot of market studies to say that this is money-making area. You can’t just say, ‘This place has potential.’ Not everyone has that vision.”

And as fun as finding $12 million in the government’s pocket is, some residents say it won’t be enough to provide for every need.

Marlene Bouray came to Northwest Middle School to voice concerns about the blight near her home and funding for public safety, but she knows there are more problems than dollars.

“I know they know all these issues,” she said, “and I know they’re working on it; $12 million just isn’t a lot of money.”

Listening tour

Mayor Mark Holland’s listening tour resumes at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, at McKinley Elementary School, 1301 Armstrong Ave. The mayor will be joined by 2nd District Commissioner Brian McKiernan.

There will be six other events throughout 2015. The mayor will be joined by the commissioner representing the district at each stop:

3rd District: July 7, Rosedale Middle School, 3600 Springfield St.

4th District: Aug. 25, Wyandotte High School, 2501 Minnesota Ave.

5th District: Sept. 8, Piper High School, 4400 N. 107th St.

6th District: Oct. 13, Turner High School, 2211 S. 55th St.

7th District: Nov. 17, Bonner Springs High School, 100 McDanield St.

8th District: Dec. 8, F.L. Schlagle High School, 2214 N. 59th St.