Three priorities for KC's new budget
The Kansas City Star
City Manager Troy Schulte faces a Tuesday deadline for giving his proposed 2013-14 Kansas City budget to Mayor Sly James. Soon, residents will know what Schulte wants to do.
Last year Schulte made waves by calling for the removal of about 100 firefighters. He lost that argument, in the end, but won a partial victory with the buyouts of several dozen personnel in the Fire Department.
So how could Schulte best serve Kansas Citians in the new budget - which James and the City Council will rubberstamp about 99 percent of, based on previous budgets I’ve watched go through City Hall the last 25 years?
Several things will be watched closely, as they always are, including what kind of raise he recommends for city employees. That’s key, because pay and benefits for workers account for about two-thirds of the budget.
Beyond that, here are three priorities.
1. How’s the city going to change its pension funding?
Yes, this nut still hasn’t been cracked by James or Schulte. They’ve been engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with city unions for months yet have never reached a public deal on how the city is going to rein in pension costs.
Let’s hope Schulte shows the public how that could happen in the budget, presumably setting aside a certain amount of money that - if approved by the council - could go a long way to establishing a base line for pension reform.
Then, of course, the firefighters union can sue the city if it wants.
2. How’s the city going to control its long-range debt?
Kansas City’s debt per resident is much higher than many of our peers. The debt has bought some good stuff over the years, such as the Power & Light District improvements, and many other upgrades.
However, Kansas City still has a lot to do to wipe out billions of dollars worth of neglected infrastructure. James might later this year unveil a new program to tackle some of those challenges, but it likely would require some kind of property tax increase and even more debt.
How high can taxes go in this city to support all of these improvements? Keep in mind that residents followed James’ advice last year in endorsing a half-cent sales tax for more parks and road repairs.
3. How’s the city going to satisfy water and sewer customers who likely will see double-digit increases - again - in their water and sewer bills?
These bills are getting serious. Kansas City once had some of the cheapest water service in the metropolitan area and it’s becoming among the most expensive.
That could be good - in the long run - if the city properly repairs water lines and even more importantly finds an efficient way to upgrade the sewers.
And by that, I’m hoping James, Schulte and others at City Hall keep the pressure on the Water Services Department to make sure it does not hand over $2.5 billion (in today’s dollars) to local engineering firms to provide “gray” solutions such as larger tunnels to store sewage overflow.
Kansas City needs to be innovative in spending the hundreds of millions of dollars water customers are going to send the city in the next few years.
I’m hoping Schulte’s budget gives residents a peek at how that might happen.