Revamping Kansas City
April voters to decide on the future of the city's infrastructure
It was down to the wire on Jan. 19 when the City Council of Kansas City, Missouri, unanimously approved ballot language for an $800 million infrastructure bond proposal. Jan. 19 was the drop-dead deadline to finalize the proposal's wording to get it on the ballot for city voter approval in April, and many who have been following the initiative were concerned as to whether it would even make it to the polls.
After the proposal came forth from City Manager Troy Schulte's office last fall, City Council members debated and negotiated for weeks over exactly how the funds were to be allocated, for presentation to voters. Kansas City Mayor Sly James likened the difficulty in reaching a compromise to a game of "whack-a-mole," while 2nd District Councilwoman Teresa Loar compared the consensus-reaching efforts to "making sausage."
For proponents of the initiative who may not be fond of metaphors involving carnival games or sausage in the context of city government, concern was raised as to whether or not so much haggling over final details would work to ultimately undermine voter confidence in the Council's infrastructure plan.
Ultimately, Kansas City voters will decide next month on the fate of this general obligation bond initiative, the largest ever in the city's history.
Why the Need?
In recent years, Kansas City's taxpayers have approved publicly funded efforts to expand Liberty Memorial, renovate the Truman Sports Complex, construct the Power & Light District and build the new streetcar line, all the while deferring costs to provide residents with better basic services. High on the citizen wish list have been improved roads, flood control projects, sturdier bridges, better sidewalks and upgraded public buildings.
"The bond initiative addresses problems we've been discussing for a long time," Schulte says. "Up until now, we've been piecemealing infrastructure maintenance projects. This initiative is more comprehensive and more affordable in our opinion. Some of our city roads are more than 100 years old and are in dire need of attention."
Deferred maintenance costs are on the rise at the rate of about 3 to 5 percent annually, according to Schulte. Other looming costs that continue to rise are federally mandated Americans with Disabilities Act building upgrades, currently with a price tag estimated at about $100 million.
The bond package, which has the support of James and the majority of the City Council, would support spending $800 million over the next 20 years (approximately $40 million annually) for such infrastructure needs. The proposal will be split into three question: to allocate $600 million of those funds for roads, bridges, and sidewalks ($450 million for roads and $150 million for sidewalks), to allocate $150 million for flood control and to allocate $50 million for public buildings and a new animal shelter. The bonds would also change the way the city repairs its sidewalks, by creating revenue to allow the city to pay for sidewalk repairs, rather than charging homeowners.
"There's never a good time for tax increases," Schulte says. "We felt this was the best time to move forward with this proposal in the face of rising costs, while the economy, job market and voter confidence are all solid."
According to 2nd District Councilman Dan Fowler, “The GO Bond is needs-based and not a wish list.”
Schulte also emphasizes “upgrading/repairing/expanding existing infrastructure, not buying new things.”
According to 1st District Councilman Scott Wagner, the bond initiative is an opportunity “to move forward on a number of fronts that will begin to cover multiple needs.”
“If we move forward, we will make a variety of upgrades to city buildings to make them ADA-compliant, [build] a new animal shelter, complete the KC Museum, [provide] a systematic sidewalk program without assessments to homeowners, and [provide] $450 million in needed road improvements and flood control projects throughout the city,” Wagner says.
What It Means for Taxpayers
The proposed infrastructure bond initiative is essentially a loan from taxpayers to the City Council that will come in the form of an incremental property tax increase each year, from $6 to $12 annually for the next 20 years.
A property tax increase is no small request for a city with an already high tax burden. For example, Kansas City is one of the few U.S. cities with an earnings tax, and Schulte has acknowledged that the proposal is a “big ask” of Kansas Citians. Still, he feels what has been proposed is the most affordable and comprehensive bond the City Council could present to meet the city’s needs.
“In terms of square mileage, Kansas City is on par with New York City, but without an adequate taxpayer base to support its own infrastructure,” he says. “We also have about as many roads and sidewalks as New York City to keep up with. We have to be thinking about managing the city not just for now, but 10 to 15 years into the future.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings and facilities to be accessible to all individuals, including those with disabilities, though such infrastructure upgrades, which are equally important and quite expensive, tend to get less attention and to be less prominent. Kansas City’s legally required backlog of changes are spelled out in current agreement between the city and the Department of Justice.
The city has spent more than $27 million in various ADA-compliant projects, though currently in need of being addressed are larger slated projects, such as $7 million for Starlight Theatre, $10 million-plus for City Hall, and more than $1 million in upgrades for the pool at Swope Park. City Architect Eric Bosch, working with the city’s full-time ADA compliance manager, Meg Conger, and Piper-Wind Architects Inc. have noted more than 44,000 deficiencies in more than 300 properties around the city. Currently about 125 intersections in the city don’t have ADA curb cuts, according to Schulte’s office.
“Making sure that our facilities and buildings are in compliance with ADA is a very pressing issue, and the deferred costs continue to go up,” Fowler says. “ADA compliance is probably the biggest thrust of this bond initiative.”
Fowler speculates the city’s Five-Year Capital Improvements plan will most likely guide how the bond package’s funds will be spent, should voters approve in April. The Five-Year Capital Improvements Plan is updated annually with public input.
Some projects are already being prioritized, based upon many factors, including shovel-readiness, those that remain incomplete, and those that best leverage existing federal funding. Projects that promote public safety and economic development are also given precedence.
With $200 million earmarked for flood control, bridges, and buildings, one of the top-priority building projects includes renovations for the aging Kansas City Museum.
The museum’s executive director, Anna Marie Tutera, says the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board has authorized construction in the lower level, as well as on the first and second floors of Corinthian Hall (the mansion) at a projected cost of roughly $12 million during the first phase of the renovations. The goal is to start construction on the mansion around mid-2017.
“If the Kansas City Museum restoration and renovation project is included in the bond initiative along with other public building projects, we will need to continue our communications efforts to build public awareness about our multi-year renovation project and scope, including its phased architectural design and staged construction,” Tutera says. “Being a municipal museum, this significant capital project will require both public funding and private funding. Public funding is critical because it shows the commitment of the city to this important cultural asset, and it will help us to raise and leverage private funding, too.” We have assembled a top-notch design project team thus far, and I am looking forward to working with the expert craftsman and contractors that will restore and renovate Corinthian Hall.”
Also on the top priorities list is a new animal shelter for Swope Park (the original was built in 1972), and heavy-handed renovations for the Neighborhood Preservation projects building on Swope Parkway, which, according to Schulte, is “literally falling down all around its occupants.”
Other Projects to Watch
Up to and after the April election is over, expect to see public focus on other separately funded projects, including the downtown convention hotel, the expansion of downtown’s streetcar and the Kansas City International airport upgrade.
- The Downtown Convention Hotel is currently behind schedule, but the development group spearheading the project indicates that it has a construction loan agreement and are looking to finalize financing for the project sometime this spring. The project is moving forward, and construction on the hotel would hopefully begin in the first half of 2017, with a projected opening date in fall 2019.
- A push to expand the downtown streetcar southward on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus would possibly be funded by a separate nominal sales tax hike, which would be open to public vote. A private advocacy group created by residents is working to move this particular project forward. If voters approve the new district for the streetcar during the mail-in election from May to July, board members would be elected in September, and another mail-in election would occur between November 2017 and January 2018 to approve the taxes for the expansion. It will become a city project after public approval is garnered. Private consultants are also studying the feasibility of expanding the streetcar almost a mile northward into Berkley Riverfront Park.
- Much debate has already taken place with regards to proceeding with modernizing MCI. Many Kansas Citians want to keep it just as it is, while airlines are recommending a new, upgraded single-terminal airport, which the airlines are willing to pay for, to the tune of about $964 million. According to Fowler, no public funds are to be used to pay for the airport upgrade. Expect to see Schulte, James, the City Council and other business and community leaders working toward a consensus on the airport’s improvements.
Pros and Cons
Critics of the infrastructure bond proposal cite Kansas City’s already existing tax burden and what some say are relatively high taxes. Critics, including a few City Council members, have also scrutinized the measure because of what they feel is vague wording in the ballot language, as well as a lack of transparency from the mayor and City Council on how the funds are specifically to be spent. In response, James and City Council members ask for some realistic “flexibility,” considering the fact that not every single infrastructure project can be predicted 20 years in advance.
“I think we are all concerned about specifics as to how the funds will be spent,” says Fowler, who initially expressed concern about more specifics as to how to allocate the funds. “To a large degree, the city manager has answered those concerns. I have to remind myself that this is a 20-year effort. I believe that we can see what specific needs are for the next five years. We cannot foresee what is needed over the next 20. Needs and priorities will change over that time, and we have to have flexibility to adapt spending to address changes.”
Fowler anticipates that voters will have a clear idea of how the funds will be spent, at least for the next five years, when they go to the polls in April. He also believes voters will support the measure if all parts of the city think they will be getting their money’s worth.
Schulte says no back-up plan is in place should the initiatives not pass, and that the city will “have to keep hobbling along with its limited resources.” It will be at least a year before another initiative is put to vote, he says.
“Why raise taxes?” asks Schulte, in response to critiques of the proposal. “There is no way to do this upgrade without affecting other public services. Infrastructure should never be in competition with public safety. Without raising taxes, one has to be favored at the expense of the other, and that should never be the case.”
To voters, Schulte would encourage them to “invest in the city’s infrastructure,” and to “keep Kansas City attractive and competitive, while supporting its everyday functioning.”
Mayor James agreed: “We are taking action on an issue that we can’t afford to ignore any longer. This is a big step forward for the people of Kansas City. The people of this city have made clear they want us to address our crumbling streets, bridges, sidewalks, aging facilities and high-risk areas for flooding. This package does just that. I look forward to talking about this package with residents in the coming weeks, and my faith is unwavering in the people of this city's ability to do what's best for our future."
In order to pass the three ballot questions, 57.1 percent of voter approval is needed on Tuesday, April 4. James and the City Council members seem confident in voter approval for all three questions.
“I think Kansas City is willing to invest in its infrastructure,” Schulte says. “We need to act and use these resources wisely.”
Both sides can argue whatever valid points they may, but one thing remains constant: The costs of deferred maintenance are not going down anytime soon. And the city isn't going to fix itself.
Proposed $800 Million General Obligation Bond Program
Election Date – April 4, 2017
Question 1: $600 million on streets, bridges and sidewalks
Question 2: $150 million on flood control
Question 3: $50 million on public buildings, which includes ADA compliance and a new animal shelter
For more information, visit kcmo.gov/infrastructure.