New KC budget has the right priorities
The Kansas City Star
Flush with cash from a new sales tax, the proposed 2013-14 Kansas City budget of $1.38 billion contains heartening news for residents and city workers.
Voters endorsed the extra $34 million a year in revenue last year, persuaded by Mayor Sly James that the city needed more funds to take care of its basic services. The budget plan proposed Tuesday by City Manager Troy Schulte indicates that pledge will be kept.
Motorists will get smoother roads, and bicyclists will get more shared bike lanes, a long unmet priority. The city will set aside enough money to resurface 180 miles of streets. That’s about 10 percent of the city’s total, the highest rate accomplished in many years.
Parks will be better maintained. The city will offer longer hours at community centers and spend more on park improvements. Those which must include planting hundreds of trees to replace those being lost to diseases.
The new spending plan also properly emphasizes the need to demolish more dilapidated houses and prepare them for redevelopment.
In addition, many city employees will get raises from 2.5 percent to 3 percent, which is a reasonable sum given previous years of stagnation. To cut costs, the city will eliminate about 100 vacant positions and save several million dollars.
But there’s also some less-than-upbeat news for Kansas City residents in the budget.
Sewer rates will soar an additional 15 percent, part of a long-planned increase to prevent overflows into nearby streams during wet weather. Water rates will climb 10 percent, with much of the money going to finance water main replacements. These are significant added costs for homeowners and businesses. The city must continue to boost the speed and efficiency of how it repairs water lines and improves sewers.
It’s extremely disappointing that the city has failed to reach pension agreements with its unions, even after months of behind-closed-door negotiations. So pension costs will increase from $58 million this budget year to $63 million in the new budget, according to Schulte. Taxpayers continue to shell out more than they should have to for pensions.
More positively, Schulte said the Police Department has stepped forward with proposed changes to its retirement systems that could save taxpayers millions of dollars in the decades ahead. The Fire Department is not on board, however.
Representatives from both departments are scheduled to appear at a City Hall meeting today to continue battling over potential alterations to their pension plans.
“The end is in sight,” said City Council member Jan Marcason, who has long fought for needed reforms. Let’s hope she is right.
It’s worrisome that the cost to operate public safety agencies continues to move up much faster than many other expenses. The fire and police departments, along with Municipal Court, accounted for 63 percent of general fund costs this year. But they will ratchet up to 69 percent of the general fund in the new budget. That’s because the fire and police departments have many of the highest compensated employees in the city. Plus, they are getting higher raises than other workers — at least 3.3 percent this year.
Schulte’s proposal will be discussed by the mayor and the City Council in coming weeks. If the council and public safety agencies can resolve their pension issues, the new budget could provide a good road map for spending tax dollars for several years to come.