What Kansas City voters need to see in $800 million bond plan

City Council members meet Thursday to discuss an $800 million bond issue.

City Council members meet Thursday to discuss an $800 million bond issue.

Kansas City’s elected officials need to nail down some details — but not too many — before asking voters to approve an $800 million bond package in 2017.

At least that’s the realistically wise approach, as I discuss later.

However, this won’t meet the smell test for many voters. Already, some City Council members say they want to put more specific promises in the bond plan. True, these pledges might attract more support at the polls. But they also could be broken in the future.

Overall, the matter of telling voters how their taxes will be used can be a delicate balance, one that City Councils have gotten right — and wrong — since 1987 as I’ve covered City Hall.

In a statement Wednesday, Mayor Sly James properly noted, “Flexibility in assembling the package is key, because we have significant infrastructure needs and this would be in place for 20 years. Flexibility also means we can be prepared. If a bridge needs unexpected repair, for example, we have to be able to allocate resources to that emergency. This is a reality we can’t ignore.”   

Council members are talking to each other in private and in public about the bonds; another meeting on the matter is scheduled Thursday at City Hall.

Now for the realistic truth to keep in mind as these plans are laid out.

Two things are guaranteed to happen if the bonds are approved and then issued over 20 years.

— James and this City Council won’t be around to dictate exactly how most of the money is used.

James and three other council members will be gone by mid-2019 because of term limits. The nine first-termers on the council will leave in 2023, at the latest.

At that point, the bonds would still have 15 or so more years  to go, with higher tax rates imposed on home and car owners every year.

Put simply, whatever pledges are made by the current council can be changed by future councils. That actually can be  the good kind of “flexibility” that James outlines.

And even if the 2017 ballot language spells out some details, it likely will be just general chunks, such as specific large amounts for roads, parks and other priorities. The actual projects — which council members will pledge in campaign appearances — aren’t 100 percent guaranteed to happen.

— The needs of the city will change over the next two decades.

It sounds good now to say money will be funneled to better roads, sidewalks, public buildings, parks and flood control. Heck, how much could those priorities be altered?

Possibly a lot. A dozen years ago, no one thought much of downtown’s future. Then more than $1 billion — a lot of it public funds that could have flowed to projects elsewhere in the city — were invested in Sprint Center, the Power & Light District, and subsidizing new and renovated housing projects.

City officials eager today to pour hundreds of millions into street improvements could be singing a different tune in a decade if mass transit becomes more popular and/or if bicycle enthusiasts get more power at City Hall over how public funds are used.

Current City Council members will put forward all kinds of what-ifs in the next month as they debate the $800 million tax increase before deciding whether to place it on the April ballot.

James said Wednesday he expects this process to be “accountable and transparent” and not devolve into “political games or insider deals.”

We’ll see about that. Thursday’s City Council discussion — and others in the future — should lay out general priorities on how to use the money. The members should not over-promise to voters.

Eventually, Kansas Citians will determine if they are comfortable approving the higher taxes in 2017 and giving city officials the “flexibility” to change with the times.