Government & Politics

Best budget outlook in a decade allows Kansas City to battle huge blight problem

“This is the strongest revenue position we’ve been in in a decade,” Mayor Sly James said Thursday in unveiling a budget that would spend $10 million to demolish about 800 vacant buildings. He spoke in the 2300 block of Chestnut Avenue.
“This is the strongest revenue position we’ve been in in a decade,” Mayor Sly James said Thursday in unveiling a budget that would spend $10 million to demolish about 800 vacant buildings. He spoke in the 2300 block of Chestnut Avenue. Special to the Star

For years, Kansas City government has been criticized for failing to deal with all the hideous, dangerous vacant houses and buildings in struggling neighborhoods.

On Thursday, Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte unveiled a plan to spend $10 million over the next two years to tear down about 800 of those properties, mostly in the central city.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James and City manager Troy Schulte along with other city officials released a budget proposal Thursday that includes spending roughly $10 million over the next two years to demolish about 800 registered dangerous buildings.

“We’re going to take care of the worst of the worst,” Schulte said before Thursday’s announcement in front of one of the target homes, at 2323 Chestnut Ave. That deteriorated house and another eyesore next door, in the Washington Wheatley neighborhood, are slated to come down soon.

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Neighborhood leader Marlon Hammons said he would prefer to see the homes fixed up. But given their condition, they are bringing other property values down.

“A vacant lot is better than a house sitting neglected,” Hammons said, adding that he is eager to see the mayor direct many more resources to building up the East Side.

The city is finally able to tackle this problem in a bold way because revenue growth is more robust than it’s been in years, reflecting an improved economy. That’s evident in the budget recommendation that James and Schulte released Thursday and that the City Council will vote on in late March. It takes effect May 1.

“This is the strongest revenue position we’ve been in in a decade,” James said. “When you have money, you can do things.”

     

Both revenues and expenditures have risen dramatically in the past seven years.

After years of recession, layoffs, program cuts and flat budgets, Kansas City’s general fund for basic services is projected to grow nearly 2 percent in the next fiscal year to $542 million, which Schulte called “boom times.”

The total budget anticipates $1.53 billion in spending, up 3.5 percent from this fiscal year, which ends April 30. Government activities, including basic services and capital improvements but excluding water and aviation, increase 5 percent to $1 billion.

Earnings tax, sales tax, property tax and business license collections are all up in ways that make Schulte think the local economy is finally recovering.

The city manager conceded the budget plan assumes city voters will renew the 1 percent earnings tax in the April 5 election. Schulte and James remain confident that voters will approve the tax renewal as they did five years ago, since it raises more than $230 million for police, fire, trash collection and other services.

An uptick in revenues is allowing for more government investment in neighborhoods that have pleaded for help since the recession hit hard in 2009.

   

The Fiscal Year 2016 breakdown by department

In the past, the city has chipped away at the dangerous-buildings problem, spending about $800,000 a year to tear down about 100 homes, but new homes kept getting added to the roster, so the city never got ahead of the problem.

Dangerous and abandoned properties in Kansas City are being razed to help fight crime.

In the 2016-17 budget recommendation, Schulte and James propose issuing $10 million in bonds over 10 years — essentially borrowing the money— and using that to knock down about 800 problem properties over the next two years.

The properties are all over the city, although the majority are east of Prospect Avenue, south of Truman Road and north of 75th Street.

The city would spend about $1.3 million a year over 10 years paying off those bonds.

The city would also spend about $1 million more on other neighborhood services, paying for a few additional codes enforcement and neighborhood staffers and boosting funding for bulky item pickup, leaf and brush dropoff, and expanded recycling centers.

It would also double the Housing Court home repair program to $300,000.

Just last month, Police Chief Darryl Forté had offered to sacrifice $250,000 for new officers and redirect that to tearing down more buildings. He said it could help eliminate havens for prostitution, drug dealing and other crime, and that’s what the budget now recommends.

An analysis by The Star found that many properties on the city’s dangerous-buildings list were also in areas plagued by crime. Nine of the top 10 ZIP codes in Kansas City for dangerous buildings were also on the top 10 list for homicides since Jan. 1, 2014.

On Thursday, Forté applauded the initiative: “There is no negative associated with directing city funds to eliminate blighted areas. I will continue to implore residents of blighted areas to assist in cleanup efforts.”

Even before Forté’s offer, the mayor and city manager have talked about getting rid of dangerous buildings for years. In fact, in 2012, James took the controls of a bulldozer to knock down what he hoped would be the first of 1,000 demolitions in a two-year initiative costing $5 million per year.

That program was only partly successful because millions of dollars then got diverted to shoring up the city’s seriously underfunded pensions. Schulte said the pension funding is now stabilized.

Schulte said he also realizes many people don’t think knocking down vacant buildings is the answer. Of the 785 structures on the city’s current list, about 550 are still privately owned. The city will notify those owners to get their act together or risk losing their derelict properties to the wrecking ball, with the cost then assessed to that owner.

But about 230 of the buildings are already in the city’s possession. For those, Schulte said he is willing to sell them for $1, and if they are renovated (which can cost more than $30,000) and then filled with an owner-occupant, the city will pay the rehabber the $8,500 that otherwise would have gone for demolition.

“So we’re trying to meet them halfway. If you believe these buildings can be saved, step forward,” he said.

Interested buyers can contact the Land Bank, which controls, markets and tries to sell these homes. Information is at www.kcmolandbank.org.

Schulte said people should contact the Land Bank soon because the demolitions will start immediately. He also warned that the rehab job is often harder than it looks. He cited one potential buyer group that initially expressed interest in rehabbing many Northeast area properties. The city provided a list of 99 addresses. In the end, the group was interested in a grand total of just six of those properties.

Still, if there’s interest from credible rehabbers, both James and Schulte said the city will work with them. And Schulte said the city is budgeting additional dollars to mow and clean up the resulting vacant lots until those can be redeveloped.

“I don’t think vacant lots are great,” James conceded. “But if I had my druthers, do I want to live next to a vacant lot or do I want to live next to a structure that’s falling down, boarded up and it’s been like that for five years? I’ll take the vacant lot.”

Others aren’t so sure. Councilman Quinton Lucas, who lives in the urban core, said demolition isn’t a housing or anti-crime strategy. Lucas and Councilwoman Alissia Canady said this initiative is a start, but many people want to see the real focus directed at redeveloping the existing housing stock and bringing in new families and owner-occupants.

For that to happen, Canady said, it will be up to banks and other lenders to step up with more East Side investment or to create a pool of money to give rehabbers the upfront funds they need to complete these projects.

This budget recommendation still must be approved by the City Council after considerable public debate. The following public hearings, running from 10 a.m. to noon, are scheduled:

▪ Saturday, Feb. 20: KC Regional Police Academy, 6885 N.E. Pleasant Valley Road.

▪ Saturday, Feb. 27: KC Police East Patrol, 2640 Prospect Ave.

▪ Saturday, March 5: Hillcrest Community Center, 10401 Hillcrest Road.

"I'd rather live next to vacant lot than a vacant building," Kansas City's mayor says.

The Star’s Glenn E. Rice contributed to this report.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

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