Kansas City’s proposed $1.47 billion budget contains millions more for the Fire Department in overtime and other expenses, but it cuts a few million dollars from health care providers.
Does that concern the City Council?
Or how about this: The city expects to collect $50 million more than last year, an increase of 3.5 percent, partly because of higher earnings tax and sales tax receipts. Yet the budget recommends 25 layoffs and no salary increases for city employees.
Is that fair to the workers — or to residents expecting high quality public services?
The 12 council members will evaluate these questions and many others in the coming weeks before approving a final budget in late March. It will take effect March 1.
For now, Mayor Sly James is on record for where he stands. This is the first year that a charter change required a joint budget from the mayor’s office and City Manager Troy Schulte. Previously, the mayor could make some recommendations for the proposed budget, and then try to make changes as it moved through the City Council.
That new policy could have a big impact this year. If council members give James a free ride on the budget, the one proposed Thursday should sail through City Hall. If council members push back and support different spending ideas on public safety, health care, capital improvements, neighborhood issues or others, the final budget could look different than the one that rolled off the presses last week.
The 446-page document from James and Schulte contains several doses of positive news for residents and city employees.
▪ Water rates would go up 3 percent after much larger increases in recent years. In addition, the Water Services Department is in its “best financial health” in years, said Finance Director Randy Landes. Rate increases have helped the agency smoothly issue bonds that are being used to finance dozens of projects to reduce wastewater overflows, repair sewers and fix leaking water lines. More costly news? Sewer rates are set to jump 13 percent.
▪ The city is fully financing pension plans for city and public safety workers, who also are paying more toward their retirements. This strategy reduces the chance that future taxpayers will be burdened with ever-escalating pension expenses or that retirees could lose part of their monthly paychecks.
▪ The Police Department is making progress in cutting civilian positions. Schulte said he’s looking for a total reduction of 100 over a three-year period, and about 30 fewer are in the next budget. Part of the goal is for the city and police — which is overseen by a state-appointed board — to consolidate functions.
Police officials say that’s happening in some fields, such as purchasing fuel. But the city and police still must become more efficient with divisions they both run somewhat independently, including human resources and information technology.
The budget does not adequately deal with how to pay for long-deferred capital maintenance on roads, sidewalks and public buildings. James previously has mentioned asking voters to approve a $1 billion bond issue, which likely would require a tax increase. However, that election won’t happen until mid to late 2016 at the earliest.
As happens every year at this time, tough choices are ahead. But this time James is more clearly leading the process to determine how to allocate Kansas City tax revenues.