KC voters deserve clear choices on key tax plans
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City plans to put at least one sure-fire winner on the Aug. 7 ballot.
Called Question 1, it would allow voters to eliminate the $12.50 annual vehicle license fee and stop the city from collecting some property taxes used to repair streets. All told, average taxpayers could cut their bills from City Hall by $55 a year.
Actually getting rid of some taxes? Sign us up for that one.
But it’s not that simple, of course. City officials are pondering two other ballot issues.
Should voters also have to endorse Question 2 — which Mayor Sly James has proposed as a half-cent sales tax increase for the parks and water departments — to get the city to eliminate the taxes and fees in Question 1?
And should voters have to approve Question 3 as well to get the goodies in Question 1? Under James’ plan, the city would issue $500 million in bonds to repair and rebuild roads, bridges, public buildings and sidewalks. That would boost property taxes over time by $167 a year for the owner of a $150,000 house and $15,000 car.
- Yes, questions 1 and 2 should be linked, as the Citizens Commission on Municipal Revenue has recommended. That would create plenty of money to replace the road repair funds cut out in Question 1.
As the citizens revenue group also noted, this would impose a sales tax on visitors who shop in the city, while the property taxes and license fees charged only to Kansas Citians in Question 1 would disappear. This would broaden the base of who pays for some improvements in the city.
- However, questions 1 and 3 should not be tied together, because that essentially would force voters to also approve a huge bond issue to get the tax cuts.
That’s just greedy, especially during tight economic times when people still wonder whether City Hall is efficiently using the money it already gets. Plus, the citizens group did not endorse that approach.
City Council members, the city staff and local business leaders are furiously debating different ideas this week. The process has a rushed feeling to it, with a May 24 deadline for approving official ballot language. A crucial test arrives Thursday at a council committee meeting to discuss the proposals.
It’s too early to determine whether the tax plans will deserve voter approval later this year — even conceding the fact that the city must invest much more money in rebuilding its crumbling infrastructure. Elected officials still must present clear, positive cases for what they want to do with the public funds.
One of the biggest issues is determining the size of the sales tax increase in Question 2, and how it will be used.
The proposed half-cent tax would generate $18 million for the Parks and Recreation Department and $14 million for the Water Services Department, under a split proposed by the citizens revenue commission. James has not embraced that split.
The panel also suggested that the city use some of the sales tax revenue to reduce the dramatic increases in future water or sewer rates. Again, the mayor’s office has not agreed to this idea. Yet given the water department’s troubled reputation, it’s questionable whether Kansas Citians would embrace a sales tax that would give it even more money, without getting some rate relief in return.
Finally, making Question 3 stand on its own is imperative. That would give city officials the opportunity to make a strong case that Kansas Citians can improve all the basics they complain about on citizen satisfaction surveys — such as crumbling streets and bumpy sidewalks — with the help of a slightly higher property tax.
If Aug. 7 is the preferred election date, city officials have just over a week to put together a sensible plan. Keeping things straightforward for voters is the best policy.