Mayor James' bold new plan includes big new taxes
The Kansas City Star
Mayor Sly James made it clear in his State of the City speech that he wasn’t going to ease off the pedal in pushing to improve Kansas City.
“There is a hunger in this city to get moving,” James said, adding, “Together we must find a way to balance the need to rebuild our infrastructure with the need to limit the tax burden on our residents.”
This week the mayor expects to roll out plans to tackle the city’s significant backlog of decaying infrastructure.
Make no mistake: The tax burden on Kansas Citians — who already face among the highest levels of local debt among large Midwestern cities — would rise some more.
James is aiming for August elections on the proposals, which likely would call for:
Two tax increases.
Elimination of a half-dozen or so taxes and fees.
Up to $500 million of new funds to better maintain streets, bridges, sidewalks and public buildings.
We appreciate the mayor’s bold request for investing in a better future. That’s how great cities get built.
However, we don’t want to see a number of proposals thrown out to see what will stick, something other mayors and councils have done during some failed elections.
If city officials seek an August election, the best proposals must be approved by May 24, the deadline for getting on that ballot. Here’s a review of what’s being discussed.
That’s right: A few charges levied on Kansas City taxpayers actually could disappear.
James is listening to good advice from the Citizens Commission on Municipal Revenue, which has given a thumbs-up to getting rid of the annual $12.50 vehicle license fee that helps operate community centers. The panel also recommends ditching taxes charged only to property owners along boulevards and parkways.
Add it up, and that could be a $14 million annual tax cut.
However, James and the council would ask voters to replace those taxes and fees with a new half-cent sales tax, creating $32 million a year. It would boost the city’s sales tax rate above 9 percent, slightly higher than other area cities.
Up to 60 percent of the $32 million would be used to increase funding for community centers and other parks-related programs.
The remaining money could be used by the Water Services Department to help make federally mandated sewer upgrades. Part of that plan could include reducing the monthly residential stormwater fee that averages several dollars a month.
Still, the net result of these switches would be an extra $18 million a year in regressive sales taxes in a city that already imposes a high tax burden on lower-income residents.
Back to the basics
The mayor and council also are reviewing a proposal to boost property taxes that would be used to back a bond package of up to $500 million.
The cost of the proposed tax hike to property owners is under review.
The excellent intent is to set this money aside to maintain the city’s public infrastructure.
However, elected officials will have to resist the urge to stuff special projects into the list that needs to be accomplished. James needs to provide leadership in not allowing a “divide by six” mentality to spread, in which council members clamor for equal pots of money for each district.
Questions awaiting answers
Legitimate concerns exist about whether higher sales and property taxes would drive more businesses and people to consider leaving Kansas City.
The city also must skip the generalities and tell voters which bridges and streets could finally be fixed with the new bond money — while also providing evidence that the last voter-approved bonds of $250 million in 2004 were spent wisely.
The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce also raised an interesting point this week: Has the city cut enough of its spending yet before asking for higher taxes?
Oh, and remember that a downtown property tax vote to start a streetcar system is still pending.
James’ package could provide smart investments in a city desperate for better basic services. But city officials must make a convincing case that their plan, at this time, is the right one.