That sales tax for Kansas City’s East Side? Don’t spend it in secret

Kansas City voters approved a sales tax for the east side, which provides $10 million annually for distressed neighborhoods.
Kansas City voters approved a sales tax for the east side, which provides $10 million annually for distressed neighborhoods. The Star

The five-member board overseeing the East Side sales tax met Monday to discuss ways to spend the money raised from the levy.

The public and reporters were barred from listening. The discussion took place behind closed doors.

That fact should deeply concern Kansas City taxpayers. The oversight board must become much more transparent about its recommendations, which will be sent to the full City Council.

This is no time for a rubber-stamp approval of secretly-reviewed proposals.

The tax — known officially as the Central City Economic Development tax — was approved by voters in April 2017. The one-eighth cent citywide tax is expected to provide $10 million a year for 10 years to help impoverished neighborhoods from The Paseo to Indiana Avenue, Ninth Street to Gregory Boulevard.

We supported passage of the tax. But we believed, and Kansas City believed, that spending would be decided through a transparent public discussion of projects and proposals.

To its credit, the board asked for public discussion of the general themes for economic development in the district. Now, though, the board has accepted specific proposals that it will review and send to the City Council for final action. Members are discussing these projects in secret.

The council is expected to take up those recommendations next month.

How many proposals were offered? How many will be recommended? The public doesn’t know, and board members would not say Monday.

How would the money be spent? What criteria will the board use for making its recommendations? Will those whose proposals are rejected be provided an opportunity to respond to concerns? Again, none of this is clear.

City officials say there will be a chance for public hearings in September, and the council will have the final say, in public. But the tax is too important, and too untested, for board members to be secretive about anything they’re doing now.

Reviewing the process for Kansas City International Airport can be helpful here. A special committee studying proposals for the terminal project also met in secret to discuss competing bids.

The final recommendation — Edgemoor Infrastructure — confused some residents. After prodding from reporters and citizens, though, the proposals were made public, giving everyone a chance to evaluate the committee’s choice.

Voters overwhelmingly endorsed a new terminal last November, in part because the process ultimately became more transparent. The same standard — “show your work” — must apply to the Central City tax board.

The money collected for the East Side should be spent soon. It doesn’t do anyone any good for the cash to sit in a bank.

At the same time, the funds shouldn’t be wasted. That’s why the City Council must insist on a full public explanation of all the recommendations it receives before considering any spending from the tax. That includes a discussion of any rejected proposals.

If members need time, they should take it.

Kansas City voters showed enormous faith in the East Side leadership that proposed the economic development tax. Now it’s time for those leaders to show faith in the city, by making sure this spending process is open for everyone to see.