Get Kansas City priorities straight before boosting sales tax
The Kansas City Star
Emanuel Cleaver was riding high in early 1999. His eight years as Kansas City’s mayor were about to end, and business and neighborhood leaders were celebrating the economic development he had brought to the city.
Cleaver still wanted one more victory. So he asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay for millions of dollars worth of flood control improvements.
But the city’s flood-control plan was poorly conceived and not a high priority for the use of extra public revenue.
Voters rejected the tax.
This history lesson comes to mind as Mayor Sly James, riding high early in this first term, is working hard to convince voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase that would help finance the city’s parks department and better maintain city streets.
However, once again, a mayor and other city officials have put forward a plan that is not well organized and is not a high priority for taxpayers.
On Tuesday, voters will decide whether they will embrace the tax increase or kill it.
My vote will be ”no” for reasons that have little to do with the direction in which James wants to lead the city and a whole lot more to do with the slow pace of change at City Hall.
Yes, James says most of the right things: The city must reform its pensions, reduce its health insurance expenses, better coordinate its fire and ambulance services, and spend more on neighborhood improvements.
However, James, the City Council and the city staff have not made nearly enough progress to get these things done by setting the right priorities at City Hall.
So why give the city more money right now — about $23 million extra a year?
History shows that getting extra revenue isn’t always the right move.
Here’s one example from 2005.
At the time, then-City Manager Wayne Cauthen was cutting general funds used by the Health Department and by providers of health care for indigent patients. Cauthen was using the general revenues to finance other city services, especially in the fire and police departments.
In that year, Mayor Kay Barnes agreed to put a higher property tax on the ballot, with the pledge that much of the money would be designated for indigent care, especially at Truman Medical Center.
I personally opposed the new tax, however, partly because it was set up to let city officials off the hook.
They wanted to collect millions of extra dollars a year from taxpayers, allowing Cauthen to finish taking away almost all general fund revenues from indigent care.
And that’s exactly what happened after voters endorsed the higher property tax. The freed up funds essentially allowed City Hall to avoid having to make some difficult but needed decisions, such as cutting the Fire Department and beginning pension reform (sound familiar?).
The higher property tax for indigent care, which raises about $16 million a year, is scheduled to expire in 2014. Naturally, health care providers already are lobbying the City Council to make sure voters will get a chance to renew the tax in the future. These health care experts know that if the special tax goes away, they won’t have much general fund money to rely on in helping indigent patients.
The proposed new sales tax on Tuesday’s ballot has some of the same problems that surrounded the health care issue in 2005.
If the city gets the extra revenue from the new tax, some of the pressure suddenly would go away when it comes to making needed changes in pensions, health care insurance and the number of firefighters, among other city expenses.
Opposing a tax doesn’t come easily, especially when James and the City Council have at least tried to choose some voter favorites for extra funds — parks and roads.
However, boosting the sales tax at this time and for this plan doesn’t deserve a “yes” vote next week.
To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or email him at email@example.com. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah