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Kansas City Voters Raise The Sales Tax To Generate $21 Million More A Year For Firefighters

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Fire Department says it needs additional money to pay for critical needs, like new ambulances, protective safety gear and to make upgrades to aging fire stations.

The vote came in a low-key election, overshadowed by concerns over the spread of the coronavirus and ongoing civil rights protests over the asphyxiation death of a black man in Minneapolis police custody.

In the first major election since the coronavirus pandemic began, Kansas City voters on Tuesday approved a sales tax increase to support the fire department.

About 55% of Kansas Citians who voted in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Cass counties approved the increase, with 45% voting against it. According to unofficial results, turnout was about 11 percent of registered voters.

The proposaldoubles the existing sales tax for fire services to a half-centthrough 2036. It would generate an estimated $21 million more per year, or more than $300 million over the life of the tax. The department says it needs the money to purchase new ambulances and fire trucks, fire station upgrades and protective gear.

The Kansas City Firefighters Union campaigned aggressively for a tax hike to benefit its membership. President Tim Dupin said Tuesday’s outcome lets firefighters know they’re doing their job well.

“We know that it’s very challenging times during this pandemic and with all the unrest in the city,” he said, “and (we) are very encouraged by the support of … first responders,”

The fire department already gets about $157 million from the city’s general fund — nearly 30%. Combined with the police department, public safety takes up nearly three-quarters of the general fund.

Fire Chief Donna Maize told the city council earlier this year that most of that money goes to personnel. She said the money raised by the tax increase would go to critical purchases, like replacing aging ambulances.

While there was no opposition campaign, the Coalition for Kansas City Economic Development Reform, which has opposed tax subsidies for luxury developments, issued a statement ahead of the vote urging people to vote against the increase.

“Raising prices for everyone would have a disproportionate impact on people who are financially and/or medically challenged,” the group said in the statement.

Coalition member Sarah Owsley said the tax increase is ill-timed, especially with the coronavirus-related economic downturn.

“Adding a sales tax during a global pandemic to make up for a budget shortfall that happens as a result of development incentives gone wild is not the answer,” Owsley said.

The election, originally scheduled for April,was adapted to fit the new coronavirus reality. Poll workers wore masks, encouraged social distancing and disinfected equipment between voters.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas thanked voters for their support of "the women and men who put their lives on the line each day."

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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