Stronger KC budget still has flaws
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City still hasn’t fixed its costly pension systems. Some bus advocates are upset about how the city’s transit dollars are being used. And, yes, water and sewer rates are rising to fix the city’s dilapidated underground lines.
Taxpayers have good reasons to be concerned about these and other unresolved issues as the city’s $1.3 billion budget makes it way toward final approval this month, starting with today’s finance committee hearing.
Still, the 2013-14 budget is the most solid one put together at City Hall since 2008, before the national recession began.
Kansas City is certainly better off than many other economically challenged cities, led by the cratering financial situation in Detroit — largely because of its pension expenses. And Kansas City’s governmental leaders have worked together to face their fiscal issues, a great contrast to the dysfunction going on in the nation’s capital.
Part of the reason behind the city’s healthier budget is the slowly recovering economy, which has led to slightly higher revenues from the city’s 1 percent earnings tax.
But give taxpayers a big pat on the back, too.
Last August, Kansas Citians approved a half-cent sales tax that will go primarily for better parks and roads, two basic services getting needed and deserved improvements.
Mayor Sly James took the lead on that tax increase, persuasively arguing that voters should give the city more money even though it still needs to deal with a number of problems. This year, with the sales tax revenue in hand, a few other concerns emerged and must be handled.
- The most important one is to get final agreements with labor groups — especially the obstinate fire union — on pension reform.
The city needs to slightly reduce retirement benefits to trim the burden on taxpayers. This move would ensure that the city could pay all the benefits promised to employees.
Fortunately, the city has reached what appears to be a reasonable pension pact with police officers and civilian police employees. That agreement is in a bill that began going through Missouri General Assembly on Tuesday, a roadblock caused by the unfortunate state control of the Police Department.
- The tussle over transit dollars goes back to an agreement that bus supporters got a few years ago.
The city basically agreed to ramp up spending on bus upgrades from two sales tax sources. However, the proposed 2013-2014 budget would use at least $2 million a year of the sales tax revenue for the downtown streetcar line, while millions more would go for other non-bus expenses.
City Council members call the shots on this one, and they likely are going to pragmatically contend that using money from the transit taxes for the streetcar is good for the bus system, thus a proper use of funds.
On Tuesday, City Manager Troy Schulte said he expected budget discussions to go more smoothly than in recent years. He’s glad of that; in early 2012, Schulte and James were pilloried for weeks by some firefighters for wanting to trim that bloated department. Eventually, a sensible reduction was reached.
In recent years, lots of citizens’ complaints emerged about the city’s poor job of repairing roads. But that cry has been muted this year, and the higher sales tax will help the city respond to that criticism.
City employees still need to make more progress in providing strong public services. This year, armed with additional taxpayer funds, Kansas City has the opportunity to show residents it can efficiently do that.