New Kansas City Council will need voters’ help in making crucial decisions

Selfie and bonding time: Mayor Sly James and incoming Kansas City Council members Jolie Justus (left) and Heather Hall during a bus tour on Monday.
Selfie and bonding time: Mayor Sly James and incoming Kansas City Council members Jolie Justus (left) and Heather Hall during a bus tour on Monday. Courtesy of Jolie Justus

Fresh off their victories on the campaign trail, 12 Kansas City Council members will take office Saturday along with Mayor Sly James.

In preparation, members of the incoming council packed together on a bus Monday for a brief tour of the city.

One excellent goal was to get up-close views of some of the many challenges that face the spread-out city of 470,000 people. Council members need this kind of homework to prepare to make crucial decisions in wisely spending public funds and establishing city policies.

But while elected officials are eager to put their fingerprints on the city’s $1.4 billion annual budget, they won’t be calling all the shots.

In fact, Kansas City voters will have a huge say in determining whether the city can maintain the momentum it gained during James’ first term in office.

▪ The future of the 1 percent earnings tax will be decided in early 2016; a state law requires an election on the issue every five years. True, voters overwhelming renewed the tax — which generates more than $200 million a year — in 2011. But James and the council can’t take anything for granted, especially given the importance of the tax in financing public safety agencies. Supporters will have to mount a convincing case for it.

▪ Voters will expect, and deserve, the opportunity to decide whether the city will issue hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to pay for a new Kansas City International Airport terminal — if that’s the final decision backed by the airlines and city officials. The council will have to make it crystal clear that general taxes will not pay for the bonds; only users will fund the project through airline fees, parking and concessions.

▪ Supporters of universal pre-kindergarten have discussed asking voters to endorse a property tax increase, within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries, to finance programs designed to get young children off to a stronger start in life. James has made education one of his four main tenets when it comes to improving the city’s quality of life. But will the full council agree to back a tax increase that doesn’t flow into the city’s coffers and instead goes for someone else’s priority?

▪ After the downtown streetcar opens to the public in early 2016, James and other backers have long hoped to ask voters to consider extending the system. The likely next step — if the streetcar meets a strong level of success in its first year — should be to find the best way to pay to expand the line toward the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

▪ James and City Manager Troy Schulte have talked about the need to make major investments in the city’s infrastructure, especially in street improvements. James has mentioned a $1 billion bond issue, requiring an increase in property taxes for homeowners and businesses. For instance, this could help finance road extensions badly needed to make development of the huge Twin Creeks residential area possible in the Northland. However, any property tax boost could be a tough task for elected officials.

▪ Kansas Citians may have to go to the polls to decide whether they support a public investment in a downtown convention hotel — passed by the council last week — if an initiative petition questioning that deal is successful. Voters in the past generally have backed the council’s decisions to pass out taxpayer incentives for economic development deals. The new council may have to mount a vigorous defense of the reasonable subsidies given to hotel developers.

▪ As water bills continue to put an ever-increasing burden on lower- and middle-income residents, the new council ought to revisit a question the last council punted: Should it try to find other ways than constantly climbing fees to finance multibillion-dollar improvements of sewer and water systems? A higher sales tax is one possibility.

And ... that’s not all.

Voters also could weigh in if the city asks for help in promoting economic development on the East Side, which could come in the big bond package.

A request for local public assistance in building a Prospect Avenue MAX bus line could be decided by voters, as could a request to do something with Kemper Arena and West Bottoms redevelopment.

Mayor James and the new council will carry plenty of clout at City Hall. But a big part of their job in the next few years will be to put forward credible plans on a wide range of important issues for Kansas City voters to decide.