Editorial: $800 million KC bond package deserves your close consideration

Voters will pass judgment on the infrastructure plan in April, but they should consider a series of questions before making up their minds.
Voters will pass judgment on the infrastructure plan in April, but they should consider a series of questions before making up their minds. ALLISON LONG

Never before in Kansas City history have voters been asked to approve a general-obligation bond package as costly as $800 million.

But that’s what voters will consider in April. The City Council has signed off on a sweeping infrastructure package aimed at improving streets and sidewalks, beefing up flood control and improving public buildings — a proposal that touches all corners of the city.

Still, even supporters acknowledge that $800 million won’t satisfy all of Kansas City’s burgeoning infrastructure needs. That total is said to be in the billions.

Let’s be clear: The council deserves credit for piecing together a well-conceived, thoughtful plan that merits serious scrutiny from taxpayers, many of whom have long demanded a more intense focus on basic needs. Preparing a massive proposal like this one is an enormous undertaking for a 13-member panel filled with officials eager to protect the interests of their home districts.

It was messy at times, and that undermined early confidence. But the council pulled it together, thanks to an eleventh-hour scramble that included barking from Mayor Sly James that he was forced to play a “whack a mole” game to reach consensus. Council support for the plan was unanimous, and members produced some badly needed specifics for how this program would work.

They designated three pots of money for different needs: $600 million for streets, bridges and sidewalks, with $150 million dedicated to sidewalks. City leaders set aside $150 million for flood control that would match a half-billion in federal dollars already pledged and, in the third pot, $50 million for public buildings and required Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades. Also included is a new animal shelter that would replace the embarrassment of a structure on Raytown Road.

Voters will pass judgment on each of the three proposals, with 57 percent support needed for passage. It’s conceivable that one question, say on street improvements, could pass while the other two fail.

Also approved was a non-binding list of 65 street projects aimed at giving voters a sense of where much of the money would be spent. Not included is any sort of timetable specifying when the projects would be tackled.

It’s too soon for us to pass final judgment on this bond package. In fact, we intend to spend the next several weeks reviewing it and considering a series of questions:

1. Is this plan transparent enough? The $800 million would be repaid through a series of property-tax increases, which have long ranked as the least popular tax. In Year 1, the owner of a $140,000 house and a $15,000 car (good averages for Kansas City) would see just an $8 increase. But by Year 20, the total would jump to $160. Taxpayers need to be aware of that graduating impact and look past the proclamations of some boosters who mention only the Year 1 cost.

Also, know this: While the plan is touted as extending for 20 years, it actually has a 40-year lifespan. Bonds issued in Year 20 will be repaid over the next 20 years. This is a long-term proposition.

2. Is Kansas City’s debt level too high? The city is now bearing a heavy load of $2.6 billion worth of unpaid bills, and Standard & Poor’s ranks the city as AA-worthy. That’s two steps down from its top AAA rating and its second-ranked AA-plus, and it means interest rates for Kansas City debt are higher than in some cities.

The city’s debt service as a percentage of governmental activities would remain above the city’s stated goal of 14.5 percent through 2024 if the city undertakes the bond package at a $40 million-a-year clip. That’s a concern, particularly if other emergencies crop up.

3. What’s the process the council will use each year to decide where the money will go? What safeguards are in place to ensure a fair-minded distribution of funds? We want to understand more about that, although the resolution does require that the city manager report each year how the money is spent.

4. How does this plan fit into the city’s overall tax and spending policies? On the same day voters pass judgment on the bond package, they’ll also be voting on a one-eighth-cent sales tax devoted to East Side development. That’s a lot of tax increases under consideration on one day, and that could impact the city’s long-term ability to consider future tax increases when needed.

5. How does President Donald Trump’s call for a major federal infrastructure investment jibe with Kansas City’s proposal? Vice President Mike Pence just told the nation’s mayors that the president wants to get a big infrastructure package done soon. Could that mitigate the size of the package that voters will consider?

This is a mouthful of a proposal, but the need is undeniable. And waiting only drives up costs. This election’s results will go a long way toward defining Kansas City for the next generation, not to mention James’ legacy. It deserves close study and consideration.