The campaign for Kansas City’s $800 million infrastructure bond issue may be on a collision course with the politics of the city’s impoverished East Side, jeopardizing the bond plan in April.
We should not be surprised. The city’s flawed petition process and the competing needs of a diverse city have made such counterproductive smashups inevitable.
The City Council approved the infrastructure package last Thursday. It calls for three property tax increases a year for 20 years to pay for a variety of projects: streets, sidewalks, flood control, public buildings.
But less well known is a fourth tax increase on the April ballot: a one-eighth-cent, 10-year sales tax hike earmarked solely for East Side “economic development.” Community activists gathered roughly 1,850 valid petition signatures to put that increase to voters, a number so low the petition drive’s success was almost guaranteed before it began.
The sales tax is likely to be popular on the East Side. The tax would be collected citywide, but the $85 million raised would be spent only inside designated low-income neighborhoods to provide incentives for private business to locate there. A sweet deal, sure, but one supporters say is necessary and long overdue.
The city’s bond issue is a much bigger political problem on the East Side. Convincing Kansas City’s poorest residents to raise their sales and property taxes is an enormous challenge, particularly if those voters are convinced the benefits of the bond issue are years away. Many inner-city voters are on fixed incomes, making lengthy property tax hikes even more problematic.
Some East Side activists, in fact, are already trying to sink the bond program. They’re angry about the project list and furious at City Hall’s lukewarm support for their economic development sales tax. They want campaign money and a full-throated sales tax endorsement from Mayor Sly James and others before committing to campaign on the East Side for the bond deal.
Bond supporters are sympathetic, but concerned for entirely different reasons. The sales tax is unpopular outside the East Side, they point out. They’re worried that directly linking the bond package to the sales tax could drag down both proposals in other parts of the city.
The players have been talking for weeks, trying to find a way out of the morass. Big-money interest groups like the Heavy Constructors will chat with their friends in the East Side’s Freedom, Inc., to see if there’s a way forward. Council members are involved, as is the mayor’s office. Civic leaders will weigh in. So will community activists and organizers.
Some strategists want a court to order the city to put a minimum wage increase on the April ballot, potentially helping turnout in low-income precincts.
Figuring out this riddle will be critical. East Side voters, if properly motivated, could mean the difference between passage and failure of the bond issues, which will need roughly 57 percent margins to pass. But catering to the East Side could bring out anti-tax voters in the Northland and in south Kansas City, risking the fate of the bond election.
City Hall wrestled with the bond proposal for months before unanimously agreeing on the package last week. That process, it turns out, wasn’t the end of the effort to advance the biggest borrowing spree in city history.
It was just the beginning.