Kansas City’s $800 Million Bond Proposal Would Chip Away At Infrastructure Backlog

Mar 28, 2017

The intersection of Hillcrest Road and Oldham in Swope Park needs work. The narrow bridge here has been considered structurally deficient since 2014.

And at night, especially when it rains, the sharp turns can be dangerous.

Two fatal crashes happened here in just the last few months.

Guard rail and bridge repairs would make this intersection safer. But it’s only one of hundreds of project all over the city in need of attention. 

“We have water and sewer infrastructure that date from the 1870’s, roads first paved in the 1880s,” City Manager Troy Shulte says.   

He says Kansas city is facing the same problem as lots of other places.

“Where the infrastructure was put in the ground and forgotten about and we're dealing with it. It’s either past its life its life cycle or rapidly approaching the end of its life cycle. And it’s very expensive to repair and replace.” 

Which brings us to next week’s Kansas City ballot. The first three questions all deal with a huge general obligation bond, also called a GO bond, to pay for these repairs by raising property taxes over the next 20 years.

Kansas City’s finance director Randy Landes says GO bonds are a good tool for cities.

"The power of the taxing authority is the security or the credit. It is effectively the best borrowing tool for the city with the lowest interest cost when we go to the market,” Landes says.

He says spreading the cost over two decades means that the financial burden is shared over time — so that property owners today aren’t paying for repairs that will benefit future generations.

Kansas City’s G.O. Bond is broken up into 3 questions:

Question 1 is for $600 million to repair roads, bridges and sidewalks.

Question 2 designates $150 million for flood control.

Question 3 asks for $50 million to build a new Animal Shelter in Swope Park and to upgrade public buildings to make them handicapped accessible.

An accompanying resolution explains in more detail how the council intends to use the money, for example, allocating $150 million in the first question to implement a systematic sidewalk replacement program. 

That resolution, however is non-binding. Future council members will be bound by the ballot language, but they could change which projects they think are important. 

Most neighborhood groups support the measure, but some political groups question the city's math 

Most neighborhoods groups, even in the poorest parts of the city, are backing the measures. Contractors and labor groups, hoping to get a piece of the work, are also supporting the package.

But a few groups are opposing it. The Show-Me Institute’s Patrick Tuohey says the city is misleading residents.

“Certainly KC has an infrastructure need. Certainly it is the responsibility of government and a proper use of taxes to address these needs. But this campaign seems to be going out of its way to suggest the cost to taxpayers is much lower than it actually is,” Tuohey says. 

This shows the city's estimated cumulative property tax increase for property owners in Kansas City, Missouri to finance an $800 million bond issue.
Credit City of Kansas City Missouri

Here’s how the city breaks it down: For a person who owns a $140 thousand home and a 15 thousand dollar car, their property tax bill would increase by an average of 8 dollars a year for 20 years. So by 2036, they’re paying an additional $160 a year.

But that formula makes it a little too simple.  

"Will that be the increase in the first year and will it go up in a linear fashion year after year exactly at 8 dollars. That in fact is not true," Landes told attendees at a town hall in February. 

Landes admits in the early years of the bond, that number is likely to be higher than $8. But he adds some years the property tax increase may remain flat, and some years, especially toward the end of the bonds, it might actually drop.

Gayle Holliday is a spokesperson for the group Freedom Inc, an African American political group that also opposes the Go bond, for a simple reason.

“I guess in the final analysis, It’s just too much,” Holliday says. 

She says as water costs have risen over the last few years, adding in a property tax increase is just too big a burden.

Freedom Inc. is supporting two other ballot measures April 4th — a sales tax increase aimed at East Side economic development and a measure that would reduce penalties for marijuana possession.

But for those who balk at the mention of a property tax hike, Mayor James asks you to consider the alternative. Waiting to fix the city’s infrastructure needs will cost a lot more in the future.

“I could easily spend my time doing thing that are fun and making everybody love me like opening a pet store and giving away free puppies," James said at an informational town hall last month. "But that’s not my job. The city needs this work, period, end of story.” 

The general obligation bonds needs a super majority of votes to pass — which means 4 out of every 7 voters needs to approve it.  And even if all three measures pass, $800 million may only put a dent in the billions of dollars of infrastructure needs in the city.

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster and a reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig