Vote ‘no’ on KC’s ill-defined East Side sales tax increase

votingHistory shows Kansas Citians love to approve new sales taxes. But they should vote “NO” on the latest one facing them on the April 4 ballot.

This is Question 4, the ill-defined, one-eighth-cent citywide tax hike put on the ballot through an initiative petition, supposedly to boost redevelopment in a slice of the city’s East Side. Here’s The Kansas City Star’s even-handed backgrounder on the issue.

(Separately on April 4, I recommend “YES” votes on the city’s three-question, $800 million general obligation bond issue. It requires an escalating property tax increase over 20 years for roads, bridges, sidewalks, flood control and an animal shelter.)

Here’s the vague idea behind Question 4: Send some public assistance to a small part of the black-majority urban core because the white-controlled private sector (and City Hall) aren’t doing enough of that.

I have lived in the urban core’s 3rd and 5th districts for the last 30 years and would agree with this much: Plenty of economic development needs exist in the heart of the city.

But the details of the plan on the ballot are mushy enough that this tax increase should be rejected.

If that does happen, supporters should work with Mayor Sly James (who has not spoken favorably of the tax), the City Council and other city officials to come up with a better proposal to give voters in the future. Or, the backers should organize to make better and more specific cases to get additional public dollars for redevelopment in other ways.

— Voters do not have sufficient explanations from supporters for using the tax increase for 10 years.

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They generally talk about spending the higher tax for land acquisition and blight removal, for example, but those explanations aren’t helpful for people to evaluate in deciding whether these are great ways to use $8.5 million or more a year.

This situation is different from most other sales taxes that Kansas Citians have helped approve for more specific purposes in the last  two decades. That includes taxes for fire employees, police stations, zoo upgrades, park improvements, Union Station renovation, bus operations and children’s programs.

(Disclosure: I opposed the first fire tax in 2001 to help the bloated Fire Department as well as the city parks tax in 2012 and the Jackson County children’s services tax, which Kansas Citians helped endorse in 2016.)

— Oversight of the tax is unclear.

A five-member commission would make decisions on spending the tax funds. But the city would have a say over only three members, with Kansas City Public Schools and Jackson County appointing the others, for no compelling reasons. This tax would be imposed in all parts of the city, in four different counties.

I’ve seen problems with this kind of arrangement before, such as the special panel that oversaw bistate sales tax spending for Union Station in the late 1990s.

— The city, contrary to what tax supporters claim, is making progress in supporting economic development on the East Side.

Those contentions are made in this KCUR story as well as in The Star’s article, where James and City Manager Troy Schulte make some reasonable points.

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The bottom line: A strong urban core is crucial to a more vibrant Kansas City, overall.

However, passage of this ill-defined tax increase would not do much to change the situation for  the better in the future.