Mayor Sly James On KC Infrastructure: 'If We Don't Fix It, It's Gonna Break'

Dec 16, 2016

Kansas City is long overdue for a fix up.

That's the message Sly James is trying to get to voters before April, when an $800 million infrastructure bond package will likely appear on the ballot. 

Speaking on KCUR's Up To Date, James said when he took office in 2011, the city already had $6 billion worth of deferred maintenance. 

That number will be a lot bigger, he said, if the city doesn't act soon. 

"If we don't fix it, it's gonna break, it's just like a house. If you don't take care of your sewers and your pipes in your house it breaks and then it costs you a lot more money," James said. 

And because Kansas City lacks the density of other cities similar in size, James says they have to find different ways to pay for those repairs. 

That's why he says its crucial this 20-year, general obligation bond passes.

But convincing voters to agree to property tax increases over 20 years will be hard.

The current challenge? Writing ballot language that voters can get behind. 

Already, the city council is grappling with how to word the ordinance on the ballot so it ensures flexibility for future councils, while giving voters enough specifics to support it. 

The city's finance department, along with the mayor and city manager, is pushing for broader, flexible language. 

"We cannot sit down and say that in year 19 we're going to repair 'X' road and it's going to cost 'X' number of dollars. To do that would be foolhardy, because we don't know what the price of asphalt is going to be, we don't know what the price of steel is going to be," James said. 

He said in the event of a bridge collapse or some other emergency, future city officials' hands can't be tied. 

But some members of the city council are concerned their constituents won't approve a tax hike without concrete details. 

"We can't pass a tax, but we can sell a product," Councilman Dan Fowler said at a public hearing earlier this month. 

Former councilman John Sharp comes down somewhere in the middle. At a second public hearing on Thursday, he said the ballot should include a few key projects that taxpayers can get behind like a new animal shelter and improvements to the bus system. 

“We should try to offer a little more specificity. I know [city] staff wants total flexibility but if it doesn’t pass, they don’t have any flexibility, cause we don’t have any money. So I think we have to have a balance,” Sharp said. 

James dismissed the idea proposed by some that the money be equally divided between the six city council districts. 

“You can’t be strategic when you’re simply dividing by six. That is a blank check. What we need to be thinking about is, if we spend money here, how big of a benefit does that create? ... If we fix a flood program that borders three and four districts, whose money does that come out of? Four? Three? We need to stop this 'divide by six' mentality.”

Despite the debate over broad versus specific, James thinks the council will find a solution before January 19, when the ballot language is due. 

 

"I’m not sure how it's going to be resolved, but I think there's probably some area in the middle that might work," he said. 

And when the bond issue does come before voters, he thinks Kansas City residents will be on his side. 

“I think people in Kansas City are down to earth and recognize ... that if you don’t take care of your plumbing if you don’t take care of your front porch,and paint and take care of your roof then you’re going to have problem with your house,” James said. "The city, look at it as a big house. We’ve got a lot of stuff that needs to be taken care of and the only way to really do it is over a bond issuance over 20 years."

Joint city council committees will meet Thursday, December 22 at 9:30 a.m. to begin crafting ballot language for the bond issue.

Mayor Sly James' full interview with 'Up To Date' host Steve Kraske is available here

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