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Even As Kansas City's Economy Comes To A Halt, City Council Passes $1.7 Billion Budget

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File photo by Julie Denesha
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KCUR 89.3FM
On Thursday, the Kansas City Council passed a $1.7 billion budget, though councilmembers admitted they don't know the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak on city revenues.

The Kansas City Council passed a $1.7 billion budget Thursday even though the city does not yet know the full extent of the impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the city’s revenues.

“We are in a most serious time,” Councilwoman Teresa Loar said during Thursday’s four-hour debate. “We should just pass a budget, see where we’re at, and then we will take care of things as we go.”

The $1.7 billion spending package, which provides added funding for police, free buses and road maintenance, is based on revenue projections made before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Kansas City.

With many businesses closed under the metro-wide stay-at-home order, the city will almost certainly collect less revenue in sales and earning taxes. Hotels and restaurants have seen sales plummet in recent weeks, which means those special taxes will also decline.

The council also voted unanimously to create a $500,000 relief package to provide grants to small businesses struggling amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and to extend the deadline to pay the city earnings tax until July 15.

As recently as last week, some city councilmembers said they didn’t expect to have enough money to pay for everything in the proposed budget. Still, the council declined to pare down the budget, which had been debated and scrutinized for weeks before the coronavirus upended life in the metro.

“When working to adjust a budget in an uncertain time, we cannot first look to cut the very services our working-class families rely on,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said in a statement following the meeting Thursday.

What’s in the budget

The budget includes a $10.7 million increase to the Kansas City Police Department, which would add 10 police officers, continue funding for social workers and add a probation officer to enforce the city’s new ordinances meant to keep guns from minors and suspected domestic abusers. 

It also includes $4.8 million to eliminate bus fares city-wide. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority initially asked for $8 million to go fare free. It's unclear where the rest of the funds the KCATA requested will come from. 

Last week, Lucas added $328,000 in funding for tenant assistance, including the creation of two tenant advocates at City Hall and money for legal representation for renters.

But even before the coronavirus pandemic triggered cancellations of large conventions and hotel bookings, the proposed budget slashed funding for Visit KC, the city’s tourism and convention agency.

It also eliminated the Kansas City Office of Cultural and Creative Services, which has been credited with helping draw productions of "Queer Eye" and "American Ninja Warrior" to the city. 

The budget also allocates $500,000 to Children’s Mercy Hospital. In his original version, Lucas proposed cutting that amount and diverting it to mental health services. He later restored $400,000 and a last-minute amendment offered Thursday by Councilwoman Melissa Robinson restored the final $100,000.

Last-minute shuffling

Several attempts to shuffle funding at the last minute ultimately failed, including a proposal to reduce $1.2 million in street resurfacing funding to go to the KCATA to eliminate bus fares. That amendment initially passed, but failed after Councilwoman Katheryn Shields decided to change her vote.

An amendment to increase funding for the police department to add officers also failed, as did a separate attempt to reduce the increase to police in order to pad the general fund.

Adding to the flurry of last-minute amendments, was the fact that five members of the council joined via videoconference in order to ensure social distancing, which caused distractions and delays.

To help reduce spending in the coming months, the council also passed a hiring freeze, which would suspend any new hires and stop the city from executing or extending any new contracts except as authorized by the council. The city can choose to extend the freeze at the end of 60 days.

The hiring freeze exempts positions with hourly wages under $20 an hour.  

The council also passed an ordinance allocating $125,000 in emergency funding to keep beds open at homeless shelter ReStart and a subsequent $125,000 if the nonprofit can raise private funding.

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig