The GO Bond Bait and Switch
The general obligation (GO) bond being considered in April would raise property taxes to pay off a series of 20-year bonds, twenty of them in total, targeted toward maintenance and infrastructure. These are legitimate city expenses that have been deferred for decades.
Despite the need, there is concern that political leaders will fall back on old practices of moving money around. Fearing this, a neighbor of mine in south Kansas City wrote some members of the City Council with a very salient concern:
What becomes of the existing general fund budget allocated to Public Works for street preservation and sidewalk repair? Does it continue to be used for street preservation or is it siphoned off to another area?
According to Kansas City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for fiscal year 2015, the budget for the Public Works Department was almost $183 million. (The budget was $187 million in FY 2014 and $212 million in FY2012.) The Council is free to allocate the general fund as they see fit. It is, after all, what we elect them to do. The response my neighbor received was not promising:
The City’s Public Works Department confirms that the funding policy for Public Works street maintenance is set by ordinance. GO Bonds will dramatically expand revenue available for street reconstruction, maintenance, and repair. By law, GO Bond proceeds can only be used for GO Bond projects and cannot be diverted.
This answer plays right into my neighbor’s worry. Yes, the GO Bond proceeds may be restricted to public works projects. The concern is that the addition of new money from the GO bond will simply allow the Council to redirect discretionary spending from the general fun elsewhere. For example, imagine telling your child that any proceeds from her summer job will be dedicated to her college fund—then reducing your own contribution to the fund by the amount that she contributes to it. She may agree to make an additional contribution, but it won’t have the impact she is expecting. Similarly, voters may approve Question 1 giving $600 million in bonds for street and sidewalk repairs, only to find that the totality of money spent on street and sidewalk repairs does not increase by $600 million.
The fear is compounded by the Mayor’s refusal to commit to specific projects and timelines. He tells us that he doesn’t know what the city will be faced with in 20 years, yet he is fine with asking voters to commit to raising their taxes for 40 years. And as stated above, the reason Kansas City faces this problem in the first place is that previous councils did not fund needed maintenance.
The ballot questions at hand ask voters to ignore decades of experience with politicians’ bait and switch.
Kansas Citians would be wise to demand more explicit and binding commitments from City Hall, and smaller, shorter-term bonds. That way they have more opportunities to hold politicians accountable.