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Kansas City Passes $1.7 Billion Budget, But It Puts Off $78 Million In Infrastructure Projects

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
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Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas delivers his State of the City address February 11, 2021, from the stage in Winnetonka High School.

The list of slated infrastructure projects will likely be changed during a city council meeting next week.

The Kansas City Council passed a $1.7 billion budget Thursday, but it ditched plans to borrow $78 million through bonds for streets, sidewalks, sewers and other building projects.

The laundry list of objections included one councilman’s complaint that the city stood poised to spend $1.75 million on repaving streets that is “probably just going to get torn down in two years” to make way for the expansion of the city’s nascent streetcar system.

A council committee will instead take another look at the projects — a clear sign of dissatisfaction with how the general obligation bonds have been dolled out. Voters approved $800 million in general obligation bonds in 2017 that would be spread out over two decades to pay for street, sidewalk and other infrastructure repairs.

“Lipstick on a pig”

Concerns bubbled up during a committee meeting Wednesday when Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said bonds were being spent “putting lipstick on a pig.” Instead of focusing on expanding infrastructure, Shields wants the city to take care of existing roads, like Ward Parkway.

“It’s got craters in it,” Shields said. “It can be mistaken for the surface of the moon.”

The council also clashed over spending priorities. Councilman Eric Bunch said Thursday that he wasn’t consulted about the projects planned in his district, which include a pavement reconstruction at the intersection of Linwood Avenue and Main Street.

“We’re going to be tearing that out to build a streetcar in the next couple of years,” Bunch said. “And spending $1.75 million on a reconstruction that’s probably just going to get torn down in two years seems a bit problematic to me.”

Bunch said two projects slated for the 4th District aren’t what he would have pushed for and are “certainly not ones that my constituents are reaching out asking for.”

Councilmembers also raised issues about the distribution of funds. In the upcoming year, only 1% was slated to go toward the 3rd District, which runs from Troost Avenue to Blue Ridge Boulevard and is bounded by Independence Avenue on the north and 51st street on the south.

“There’s nothing that can justify the lack of equity,” Councilwoman Melissa Robinson said.

A council committee is expected to revisit the list of projects next week.

“We’re still broke”

The city’s budget was hit hard by pandemic losses, but the budget doesn’t cut city jobs. Instead, the city put in place a hiring freeze and is giving employees incentives to retire early.

Originally, the city budget cuts included reductions to tenant advocacy. That drew backlash from tenants who argued that the economic strain meant families need more rental assistance. In the end, the city gave the Office of the Tenant Advocate almost $1 million. That's well above the $111,495 initially suggested by the city manager’s office.

Diane Charity, a leader with the advocacy group KC Tenants, said the money will help enforce protections for renters “after two years of scraping and clawing (for) inadequate funding.”

“It’s a victory,” she said, “for tenants across the city.”

The additional money comes from federal funds for emergency rental assistance. The city is also getting $195 million in federal funds as part of the latest coronavirus relief package. That will help the city avoid a budget shortfall and put money back in its rainy day fund. But the cash infusion isn’t reflected in the budget passed Thursday because the mayor wanted to wait until the city receives the funds before doling out money.

“We’re still broke, actually. We’re just broke people who got a job,” Lucas told council members in mid-March. “So we think we’ll get money. And some people buy a new car, new suits before they have started the job. Others don’t — I usually try not to.”

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