On May 11, when Mayor Sly James and Burns & McDonnell presented their plan for a new airport terminal to The Star’s editorial board, we asked if anyone knew precisely what voters would be asked to approve in November.
No, we were told. The ballot language was a work in progress.
Today, with less than a week to go before the deadline to put a question on the November ballot, the language that voters will consider remains up in the air.
There’s plenty of responsibility to spread around for a critical last-minute problem that threatens a November election.
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The mayor and his supporters have stubbornly backed private borrowing for a new Kansas City International Airport terminal. That may have delayed conversations that would have solved the financing question weeks ago.
But others on the council have been equally stubborn in supporting public borrowing through what’s called general aviation revenue bonds. Too stubborn.
We now know enough to compare the two approaches: Private borrowing would cost about $2 million more per year than public bonds. At the same time, proposers appear to agree private borrowing also means a better airport more quickly.
The selection committee and voters now have enough information to decide which idea is best. That’s why compromise this week is essential.
The ballot impasse isn’t about the merits of either borrowing scheme. Here’s the truth: Taxpayers won’t pay for a new KCI either way. Airport users will.
Instead, the delay is about politics and money. James believes voters will approve only a privately financed project, while some council members think voters are smart enough to understand how public borrowing works.
Profits are involved, too. Private borrowing puts more money in the pockets of the winning airport developer. Public borrowing means more cash for underwriters and bond advisers.
That’s why both sides have fought so bitterly over the ballot. But the time for fighting is over. The ballot language must be fixed this week.
There are signs that a compromise is possible. One approach that shows promise: adding language to November’s ballot that promises a second election if public financing the agreed-upon method.
That election would likely be held in April. Public bond financing requires voter approval.
The compromise would allow the city to keep its options open. It gives voters a clean up-or-down vote in November without having to figure out how they want to borrow the cash.
And it leaves open the possibility of so-called conduit financing, in which a smaller Kansas City agency actually borrows for the project. That may end up being the preferred approach.
Council members deserve credit for their work on what they call a “unity” ballot. Now, recalcitrant members should bend just a little to reach a consensus.
Leadership isn’t just about the loudest voice. It’s about finding a way to agree, and seizing that opportunity. The mayor and the council should do just that.
This is also an important week for picking a terminal developer.
The two likely front-runners — Burns & McDonnell and AECOM — have engaged in a regrettable series of criticisms and accusations.
Fortunately, the selection committee does not seem distracted by the petty back-and-forth. The proposals are complicated and dense. Some of the criteria for choosing a proposer are subjective. Yet the winner will be expected to design and build the biggest public building project in Kansas City history. It’s an important and difficult decision.
That’s why we were encouraged when Councilwoman Jolie Justus told us that she and the other members of the search committee would make their work product public once the vote is taken.
Kansas Citians must have absolute faith that the winning bidder was properly chosen. Public disclosure of the decision matrix is the best way to do that.