Back in 2013, when we examined Kansas City’s spending relative to other regional peer cities, what we found wasn’t good: Kansas City spends more than most of its peers per capita, both in total spending and in city administration.
Kansas City borrows a lot, too. We spend more per capita on servicing our debt than every peer city we examined except St. Louis (the other peer cities we looked at were Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Indianapolis, Denver, and Louisville). Because cities with higher incomes are better able to handle debt, we also looked at the city income-to-debt ratio. The results weren’t flattering. Kansas Citians earn $5.28 in income for every $1 of debt the city carries. Louisville and Tulsa had much better ratios, ($35.92 and $17.66 for every $1 of city debt, respectively).
The City borrows money for lots of things. For example, a few years ago the city borrowed $10 million from the airport just to cover the costs of TIF commitments. Kansas City issued bonds to help pay down its debts for the Power & Light District; this reduced annual payments in the short term, but increased the total amount of the debt. As a result of existing debt, the city cannot pay for basic services such as tearing down dangerous homes—and so it must borrow again to generate the $10 million needed.
Despite lofty city rhetoric against payday loans, we seem to be managing city funds using a similar model. Even the Mayor’s own Citizen’s Commission on Municipal Revenue reported in 2012 that the city’s debt ratios, among other things, “raise red flags.” Their report found that Kansas City has debt levels higher than all the peer cities it considered.
Right before Detroit declared bankruptcy it was borrowing money to cover employee bonuses. Kansas City hasn’t gotten to that point yet, but things are not looking up. Is this any way to run a city?