Editorial: Vote ‘yes’ on East Side sales tax for urban renewal

Five things to know: Citywide eighth-cent sales tax on KC's April 4 ballot

Advocates for a citywide one-eighth-cent sales tax on Kansas City’s April 4 ballot want to spur economic development along Prospect Avenue, a central city stretch that has been deteriorating for decades.
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Advocates for a citywide one-eighth-cent sales tax on Kansas City’s April 4 ballot want to spur economic development along Prospect Avenue, a central city stretch that has been deteriorating for decades.

Kansas City’s voters should support a proposed sales tax for improvements to the impoverished East Side.

The One City initiative — Question 4 on the April 4 ballot — calls for a 10-year, one-eighth-cent citywide sales tax increase. The money raised, expected to total up to $100 million over a decade, would support economic development and neighborhood improvements in an area from Ninth Street to Gregory Boulevard, and from The Paseo to Indiana Avenue.

The plan is far from perfect, but it deserves to pass.

No one can doubt the need. Kansas City’s East Side is a neglected jumble of aging and abandoned homes, hollowed-out businesses and boarded-up schools. Barbed-wire fences surround salvage yards. Liquor stores dot the corners, while grocery stores are scarce.

Vacant lots separate neighbors from one another. Weeds and trash go unattended. Jobs are in short supply. Crime and drugs are persistent problems.

The petitioners who worked to place the sales tax on the ballot concede it will only begin to ameliorate the problems. But they’re right to insist Kansas City will be whole only when it addresses the crumbling reality its poorest residents face every day.

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While supporters say the funds would be spent throughout the new district, their clear aim is to provide incentives along the Prospect Corridor, from 27th Street south to 63rd Street. They want to improve streetscapes and upgrade housing options. Better lighting is needed. Crime reduction technology has been promised. Improved mass transit is on the agenda.

The plan is to incentivize “nodes” of improvements at key intersections. After that, boosters say, they need funds to encourage more private investment in the corridor.

Some Kansas Citians outside the district say devoting a citywide sales tax to just one area is unfair. But voters, including those on the East Side, have long sent their tax dollars to specific projects, including downtown improvements, the Truman Sports Complex, the zoo, even Union Station two decades ago.

City officials note that they’ve provided funds for the East Side. They have a point. But the need is so enormous, a dedicated citywide tax — with a 10-year sunset — is justified.

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The funds must not be wasted, of course. We’re concerned that the project list lacks details, and oversight of the money seems loose. Tax supporters say a five-member commission will provide only recommendations to the mayor and council, ensuring all taxpayers have a final say in where the money goes.

Elected leaders will need to be vigilant if the tax passes, as will reporters and local watchdogs. The money should be spent on a pay-as-you-go basis, in a transparent and open process, so that decisions can be evaluated each year for effectiveness.

Tax boosters have an incentive to get this right: Misusing the funds will make it nearly impossible to renew the tax a decade from now. And we’ll be the first to argue for ending the tax if there are signs of waste or abuse of the fund.

One other concern with the plan: It’s a sales tax increase, which hurts the poor — the very residents the proposal aims to help. Some supporters of the tax hike agree with that criticism. But they say a citywide sales tax is the only measure that could gather sufficient votes to get things moving along Prospect.

It takes a simple majority to pass.

This campaign has been marred by political infighting between supporters of the sales tax and proponents of the bond package proposed by City Hall. Each side opposes the other. There is more than a little political posturing in both plans, a reflection of the divisions and arguments that have long plagued Kansas City.

Kansas Citians should ignore that noise and reach a judgment on the merits of each proposal. Our city’s poorest neighborhoods have needed help for decades.

The sales tax proposed by the petition committee isn’t the final answer, but it will be a start, one that voters should endorse.

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