New Kansas City budget needs right priorities to help earnings tax vote

Kansas City’s water and sewer bills will be going up again in 2016 to pay for services such as cleaning sanitation lines.
Kansas City’s water and sewer bills will be going up again in 2016 to pay for services such as cleaning sanitation lines. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Kansas City’s new budget plan, which will be unveiled late next week, deserves to get a lot more attention than usual.

The biggest change from last year is that this budget — jointly released by City Manager Troy Schulte and Mayor Sly James — will be scoured by a mostly new City Council.

Many of the members who took office last August pledged in their 2015 campaigns that they would advocate for neighborhood-friendly programs. They get the chance to carry out those promises in the next few months. How much of the proposed budget, if any, will they change?

In addition, because residents are being asked to renew the city’s crucial 1 percent earnings tax in April, they will be looking for any perceived fat or questionable programs in the new document.

Thousands of city workers will be keenly interested to see whether they will get a raise after this year’s salary freeze. Meanwhile, police and fire department employees will scour their large budgets to see whether city leaders are pushing new ways to efficiently provide all-important public services.

Residents of the East Side will be looking to see how seriously James and council members are taking their needs, such as removing dangerous buildings, mowing vacant properties and attracting private economic development.

Here are a few benchmarks the fiscal year 2017 budget, which begins May 1, should aim to achieve.

The employee raise pool is expected to be around 2 percent, perhaps a bit higher. That seems reasonable and is in line with city budget plans for the next few years.

The Police Department has requested 60 new officers to better patrol Kansas City. But James and the council need to see a comprehensive staffing report that Chief Darryl Forté also has properly discussed before committing to millions of dollars in new expenses. The department may already have much of the personnel it needs, but on desk jobs, not on the streets.

Forté also has brought up the good idea of stepping up the city’s program to knock down about 800 dangerous buildings. The money to make a much bigger dent in that problem should be in the proposed budget because this could be a way to remove blight while making neighborhoods safer.

The budget also ought to include funds to ramp up housing rehabilitation programs. That would serve the positive goals of council members and residents who want to reuse some of the thousands of vacant houses in the city, especially on the East Side.

The new budget should include a clarion call for the Fire Department to make better use of its personnel. Emergency medical service responses are far more prevalent than fire calls these days, which could require staffing and equipment changes to keep up with the times. Curtailing the requirement of sending fire rigs to every medical call should be high on the list of items to be reviewed.

The Water Services Department will officially request higher water and sewer rates in the budget. Over the last few years, the City Council has approved significantly higher sewer charges to pay multibillion-dollar program that will reduce sewage overflows into local streams. Fortunately, the agency has made strides in the last two years in more quickly repairing leaks and replacing water lines, using higher water revenues.

City Hall’s bid to renew the earnings tax will get more deserved scrutiny before the April vote. If James and the new council make wise decisions while approving the budget, that should help ensure needed passage of the tax.