City Hall has to set top priorities to justify $800 million in higher taxes

Kansas City officials are looking into asking voters to approve an $800 million bond plan in 2017. It could include repaired sidewalks along with new ones.
Kansas City officials are looking into asking voters to approve an $800 million bond plan in 2017. It could include repaired sidewalks along with new ones. File photo

While most people have their eyes focused on November elections, plenty of Kansas City’s elected, civic and neighborhood leaders also are making plans for a crucial decision next April.

That’s when City Hall expects to ask voters to approve a property tax increase that would help pay to issue $800 million in bonds over the next 20 years. There’s some urgency to the matter because the City Council has to decide by January whether to move forward with this huge undertaking.

The city’s siren song now: This money would pay for “basic services,” possibly falling into six categories outlined in an interview last week by City Manager Troy Schulte. They are better roads, bridges, parks, public buildings, flood control and sidewalks.

All that sounds fine — on the surface. Kansas City certainly has a way to go in providing top-flight public amenities.

However, over the next few months, residents and business executives ought to keep a close eye on what Schulte, other city staff members along with Mayor Sly James and the City Council try to put in the $800 million package.

Priorities must be set. For instance, the Water Services Department already has given Schulte a list of $486 million in pending projects for the bond list, some of which would qualify for federal matching funds. Repairing sidewalks and adding new ones could cost $1.3 billion.

Boom, there goes all of the $800 million in potentially available funds and more.

Ultimately, the city ought to at least provide voters with a general review of where the money would go along with best guesses at how much each category of improvement could receive.

To take one example, some city officials have talked about spending $300 million for sidewalks. That’s 37.5 percent of the total amount, probably a little high. But it’s also a top priority in many neighborhoods, and this bond package is supposed to be aimed at providing public services that directly affect the most residents possible.

What might be chopped off Schulte’s list?

While improving parks is a fine goal, taxpayers in 2012 approved a sales tax increase aimed specifically at bolstering Parks and Recreation Department programs while also better maintaining its facilities. So an argument can be made that voters already have anted up for parks; maybe roads, sidewalks and other projects should get more attention this time around.

Another key point is that a tax increase would be needed to make these kinds of major upgrades.

The old days of issuing bonds without higher taxes — perfected by former Mayor Kay Barnes in the early 2000s — got some projects accomplished. But that tactic also sliced into revenues available to pay for day-to-day operating expenses at City Hall. As a result, Kansas Citians complained about the quality of various public services during those years and afterward.

There is no free lunch when it comes to financing bonds. Schulte and James properly have made that point in recent years. Of course, whether voters will agree with them could be a whole other matter. It will take 57.1 percent approval at the polls to pass the bonds in 2017.

Schulte already made it clear that he does not expect to trot out a list that would extend through all 20 years, telling voters exactly how the city would use the bond funds. That makes good sense. Who knows what the city’s needs will be in, say, five years, much less 15 years?

However, the city should provide taxpayers with an early list of projects and spending priorities. Here’s an example.

Last month, animal lovers unveiled a plan to build a bigger shelter for the thousands of pets they take care of each year while trying to get many of them adopted. The city would provide up to $14 million from the bond package, while the private sector would chip in $3 million. Yet questions already have surfaced about the size and cost of the facility, and whether the city could afford to operate such a large center.

If this project is included as a carrot to induce voters to approve the bonds, it needs to be at the right cost to the public.

Finally, James and others supporting the bonds are sure to claim that smoother roads will result from approving the bonds. Residents’ satisfaction scores with streets are often low.

While road maintenance certainly is a top priority, the city has pledged before to make strides in this area. They did it in the 2012 sales tax election and always trot out streets as the recipient of funding whenever it’s time to renew the city’s capital improvements sales tax.

This time around, voters ought to insist on more than just a general outline of what’s going to be done with city streets if the $800 million bond package gets a thumbs up in 2017. Specific projects ought to be given to the public so they can evaluate whether they want to use their money in those ways, at least over the next few years.

The bond plan, if endorsed, could make a dramatic difference in the quality of the city’s basic services. With such a large tax increase on the line, plenty will be at stake next year.