It was a good move to delay the stormwater tax request in KC

Kansas City needs to continue providing street sweeping services even though a stormwater tax increase won’t be on the ballot until 2016 at the earliest.
Kansas City needs to continue providing street sweeping services even though a stormwater tax increase won’t be on the ballot until 2016 at the earliest. Kansas City Water Services Department

Kansas City’s elected officials properly decided last week they would not ask voters this year to approve a flawed plan to quadruple stormwater taxes on homeowners and businesses.

The City Council still could bring the issue to voters, possibly in 2016. That gives elected officials more time to determine whether a tax increase request is merited and, if so, how high it might go.

The taxes discussed in recent months by the Water Services Department were steep. The average homeowner charge could have gone up over 10 years from $2.50 to $10 a month, while average commercial rates could have risen from $44 to $176 a month.

The tax helps pay to clean and repair catch basins, sweep streets, pick up leaves and brush and collect hazardous waste. The tax creates $12 million a year, a figure that would have shot up to $48 million annually in the next decade.

With the increase sidelined, City Manager Troy Schulte must find the funds to make sure the city can provide most if not all of the services the tax supports.

He previously has said current tax revenues can’t do that, but there’s a catch to that contention: The city used to fund some services — leaf and brush pickup as well as street sweeping — out of the general fund.

City Hall may have to make it a priority to use the general fund again to keep these services going. If they truly are that important — as tax boosters claim — the city should not back away from providing them. Other, lower-priority projects can be pushed aside or reduced in the city budget.

As we have noted many times in the last few years, Kansas Citians already are paying tremendously higher monthly water and sewer bills. Much of that money properly is being used to strategically repair water lines and to comply with federal rules designed to prevent wastewater overflows from polluting local waterways.

The city expects to replace 28 miles of water lines by April 30, then maintain that pace for years to come in annually fixing about 1 percent of the city’s massive system.

As for sewers, the city is at the beginning stages of carrying out what could be $4.5 billion to $5 billion worth of upgrades.

Yet all of this comes with stiff costs for customers.

The average residential sewer charge has almost doubled in the last five years, to $46.60 a month. A 13 percent rate increase is set to take effect May 1 followed by at least four more years of similar increases. In 2020, the sewer portion of the average residential bill could reach almost $100 a month.

The water-only portion of an average monthly residential bill has jumped 50 percent in four years, to almost $45. And it’s expected to rise 3 percent annually over the next five years.

Asking residents and businesses to quadruple the stormwater tax — the third part of the monthly water bill — must be done prudently. Voters need to see a specific plan and how a higher stormwater tax could help them in the future.

As long as city officials make an honest effort to keep providing most services supported by the stormwater tax, there’s no major harm in waiting until 2016 to put any new proposal on the ballot.