$175 million isn’t chump change. Kansas City can’t rush vote on housing, project bonds

·4 min read
Tammy Ljungblad/tljungblad@kcstar.com

Serious questions surround a plan to borrow $175 million for various Kansas City projects, even as the City Council barrels toward a November vote.

Wednesday, the council’s finance committee recommended approval of the ballot measure, sending it to the full City Council for a final vote as early as this Thursday.

That’s far too fast, and could jeopardize public support. Mayor Quinton Lucas revealed the five-year plan only last week, leaving residents little time to scrutinize the project list or analyze the cost, or whether the city can afford the debt.

And Lucas has yet to make the case as to how the plan fits into a broader strategy for making Kansas City a better place to live and work. It’s a familiar whack-a-mole approach: Throw millions at perceived problems without a full discussion over whether the money might be better spent somewhere else.

In 2017, Kansas Citians approved an $800 million infrastructure bond issue, and taxes will go up in the years ahead to pay back that borrowing. Now, the city wants another $175 million. You’ll have a few weeks to make up your mind.

A growing, vibrant city needs sustained capital investment. This new debt, and the projects the city says it will fund, may well be good investments for residents here. Providing funds for more affordable housing, especially, is critical for the city. So are swimming pool repairs or keeping the convention center well-maintained, for instance.

But whether they are the most urgent priorities right now, and whether the long-term debt they’ll require is worth it, are questions Kansas Citians should listen closely for answers to in the weeks ahead, assuming the City Council, as is expected, agrees to put the items on the ballot. (It’ll take roughly 57% of the vote to pass).

Here are some questions they’ll want to consider.

The $175 million bond issue is broken into two questions: $50 million for the city’s Housing Trust Fund, and $125 million for other projects. Those “other projects” include $45 million for repairs and improvements to Bartle Hall and the convention complex, and $80 million for community center improvements, swimming pools, a “destination” playground and other amenities.

The city says the $50 million for housing would include “sustainable” projects for “very low income” residents. How would it work? Would the money go for new subsidized apartments? Rehabbing existing homes, or building on vacant lots?

Another $45 million would be spent on “urgent” repairs and upgrades at Bartle Hall, including lighting, new escalators, restroom improvements and the like. Why are those repairs necessary? Are they more important than street and sidewalk repairs, or other needs?

Is the convention center complex still a high priority in an era when big conventions and meetings are less popular?

Finally, $80 million would be set aside for swimming pool repairs, shelters, community center upgrades, tennis courts and other recreational amenities. These are important needs, but must again be considered in context of other projects.

There are long-term issues too. The plan would take five years: In the first year, for example, only $35 million would be available for the entire project list. How much of that fractional amount would go to urgently needed affordable housing in the first year? In fact, almost one-third of the spending — $60 million — would not be available until 2028.

It will be hard to ask some voters to be patient for a new playground, or affordable housing, while the city pours millions into restroom renovations at Bartle Hall.

We’ll want to know if Kansas City can afford the debt, given that its debt ratio is already higher than what some rating agencies recommend. We’ll explore how these projects affect plans for downtown baseball or other projects. Voters will want to know whether and by how much their tax bills will go up, even if the city keeps its pledge to not raise the tax rate itself.

These concerns can all be addressed. But without the needed answers, it will be difficult for the council or the voters to approve this borrowing. No one will support a blank check for City Hall no matter how flashy the projects seem. It’s the mayor’s job to now show why the borrowing is necessary and prudent. The City Council must give itself, and voters, time to let him make that case. Waiting another week for a final vote is just good sense.