Kansas City voters will decide in April whether to increase the city sales tax to help maintain buildings and buy new vehicles for the fire department.
The City Council voted 10-2 on Thursday to place the issue on the ballot in April. Councilmembers Melissa Robinson and Eric Bunch voted against the measure. Mayor Quinton Lucas was absent.
The plan would double the sales tax collected for the fire department from a quarter cent to a half cent, which would raise an additional $21 million a year.
Kansas City Fire Chief Donna Maize told a council committee that the money would help pay for everything from protective safety gear to making sure all firehouses have gender-neutral restrooms and bunks.
One of the most critical purchases would be a new fleet of ambulances.
“We're running pretty close on not having ambulances to put responders in,” Maize said.
Maize said KCFD has been doing maintenance to extend the three- to four-year life cycle of an ambulance another year, but new vehicles are sorely needed. She also hopes to add nine ambulances to bring the fleet to 60 to keep up with high deployment numbers.
Kansas City already has a high sales tax burden — in some parts of the city, people are paying more than 11 cents on the dollar. And voters approved a 15-year renewal of the fire sales tax back in 2014.
Third District Councilwoman Robinson is concerned about hiking taxes on low- and middle-income residents. But she also worries about the timing of the vote — Thursday’s passage of the ballot language means voters will decide on the tax increase in April.
April elections are generally low-turnout affairs, and she’s concerned about getting the word out in time — especially in her district.
“If you think about the voter turnout in the areas that have economic mobility challenges like the third district, you will see that there’s a great disparity in the number of people that go to the polls,” Robinson told KCUR.
Robinson said she wishes the City Council had held the measure to better engage citizens. Still, she said the fire department has critical needs that the city can’t accommodate in its budget.
The fire and police departments account for a majority of the city’s general revenue. Last year, the fire department collected $150 million from the city, plus $21 million from the sales tax. The health levy also supplements the department’s budget.
Had the ordinance been voted on a week later, it would have gone on the August ballot.
Before the vote, the council approved a measure that would prevent the additional sales tax revenue from being used for economic redevelopment.
The last time a sales tax increase was before voters, it failed.
Last April, Kansas City voters rejected a three-eighth cent sales tax to fund universal pre-K for 4-year-olds.
Julie Holland, who worked on the pre-K sales tax campaign and is now with the Parent Leadership Training Institute, said she had mixed feelings about seeing another sales tax hike on the ballot.
The city has already invested in firefighters and the department’s infrastructure through both general funds and a sales tax, she said.
She told KCUR she wishes the city had unlimited funds to support both public safety and early childhood education. The latter, however, is a long-term strategy that would yield results only years from now.
“You’re investing in a future, and that’s what I think is economic development investment: you’re investing in the future of our work force, and this is the best return on investment for a regressive sales tax.”
Mayor Quinton Lucas, an outspoken critic of tax increases in the past, opposed the last proposed sales tax increase. In a statement to KCUR, he said the fire department would have the opportunity over the next few months to justify the increase to voters.
“I maintain that City Hall can and must also find ways to reallocate pre-existing tax dollars to meet modern-day needs,” he said in an email.
The sales tax will be up for a citywide vote April 7, 2020.
Lisa Rodriguez is a newscaster and covers Kansas City, Missouri, City Hall for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.