Robust Kansas City budget has right priorities on water and public safety

Kansas City’s new budget was revealed last week in a news conference led by City Manager Troy Schulte (from left), Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner and Mayor Sly James.
Kansas City’s new budget was revealed last week in a news conference led by City Manager Troy Schulte (from left), Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner and Mayor Sly James. Special to the Star

What a positive difference a year has made for Kansas City’s budget.

Last spring City Hall froze pay for employees and eliminated dozens of non-public-safety positions.

This year the newly unveiled budget from Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte offers a salary increase of about 2 percent and no layoffs. Plus, crucial sales and earnings tax revenues are expected to rise at a faster rate.

The city has extra funds needed to tackle high-priority needs in neighborhoods. The Star last week endorsed the recommendation by James and Schulte to demolish more than 800 dangerous buildings in two years, while beefing up programs to renovate other vacant houses. These are much-needed approaches to removing blight and encouraging a re-population of the urban core.

The City Council should endorse that proposal while reviewing other key factors in the $1.5 billion budget that takes effect May 1.

Two of the most important numbers in the document are the proposed increases of 13 percent for sewer rates and 3 percent for water. The rapid escalation of sewer rates in recent years is paying for a multibillion-dollar plan to reduce sewage overflows. The higher water rates are being used to more quickly fix water lines.

Fortunately, under better management, the Water Services Department has accelerated its repairs and construction of these projects. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses deserve better services for their larger bills; the rate increases merit approval.

The budget does not call for hiring more police officers, and that’s fine for now. The city and police will pay for a staffing study that should show whether the Police Department has the correct amount of officers to battle crime. A study could determine that the city needs to expand its patrol force — but also might recommend taking officers off desk jobs and putting them on the street.

The staffing study should look at the rate of crimes, where they occur and how the police can best respond to continuing neighborhood concerns about public safety.

The budget doesn’t shut down fire stations or contain excessive raises for the Fire Department. The city, though, is still working on a new contract with the union. The task is made difficult by the special staffing and pay demands the union makes this and every year.

Ultimately, the city needs a reasonable contract with the fire union. It should award firefighters raises that are similar to other employees. And it ought to include long-needed changes in how the Fire Department can more effectively use its personnel at a time when emergency medical calls are far more prevalent than fires.

Unfortunately, the proposed budget still falls far short of putting aside enough money to deal with the backlog of other infrastructure needs, especially when it comes to roads, bridges and public sidewalks.

James warned that the budget will have to be completely retooled if voters reject a five-year renewal of the earnings tax on April 5. A defeat ultimately would eliminate up to $240 million a year in revenues, leading to layoffs and other tax increases.

That’s a bad-news budget Kansas Citians don’t deserve. Voter approval of the tax is essential and warranted.