On Tuesday, Kansas City, Mo. voters will get the chance to decide on two measures which would give the city more money for maintenance and upgrades.
One’s a request to issue bonds for sewer upgrades. The other’s a little more complex. It’s a sales tax planned as one move in a complex strategy to fund parks and streets. To explain how these are supposed to work, Alex Smith spoke with Lynn Horsley, who covers city hall for the Star. She started with the sales tax.
On the half-cent sales tax increase meant to pay for parks maintenance and improvements:
"The Kansas City Parks Department has absorbed $9 million in cuts in the last five years, and they say it's made it increasingly difficult for them to keep the parks, playgrounds and community centers up to par. And so the sales tax money would be dedicated to the parks department, and it would provide about $3 million more for operations than they currently receive. The parks department currently gets other general fund money; that money would then be available to go for a new street fund, and the ballot language allows for dedicating 7.5 percent of the earnings tax collections to streets, which would be a minimum of $15 million and could be as much as $20 million for streets."
On how much Kansas City currently spends on its streets:
"Now engineers and experts in infrastructure maintenance say that Kansas City should be spending about $30 million on streets; we've never gotten close to that. Currently this year the city has budgeted $8 million, which is a paltry sum for the volume of streets we have. We have some of the largest number of lane miles per capita of any city in the country. $8 million is not enough to maintain all of Kansas City's streets."
On whether the sales tax would shift more of the burden of street and park maintenance to lower-income residents:
"There is some concern, a sales tax is regressive. Of course if you don't own property but you do buy food or goods, you're going to be paying the sales tax. Whereas if you own a car or several cars or live along a boulevard, you would pay this property tax. However the sales tax is also paid by people who don't live in Kansas City, but who maybe shop in Kansas City, and who probably use the streets and the parks. So it spreads the burden to people who live in the metro area but use Kansas City's parks and streets. I think about a third of the tax is paid by non-residents, whereas these property taxes and the vehicle fee (set to expire in August) are paid only by residents. So the city feels like, in this way, they're able to spread the tax burden a little bit farther with the sales tax."
On the other ballot measure, regarding city sewer improvements:
"There are new federal regulations about maintaining our sewers and dramatically reducing the amount of pollution, waste water pollution, that's been going into Kansas City's rivers and streams. This is something that's been in the works for years, but now Kansas City has to do these improvements to the sewers. And if they don't maintain the schedule and keep to the schedule that's required by the federal government, there will be fines. And it is a very expensive program; overall it's supposed to cost $2.5 billion.
"To pay for those bonds Kansas Citians will see their sewer rates go up by about 15 percent for a couple of years and then 13 percent until 2020...However if people vote 'No' on this bond authorization, their rates will go up even faster -- they will almost double in the next two or three years."
See Lynn Horsley's full breakdown of the two ballot measures in the Kansas City Star here.