Kansas City’s Auditor, Doug Jones, announced recently that his office was going to look into whether the city is properly overseeing community improvement districts (CIDs). This is a good start. And while this is a process audit and not a financial audit of the CIDs themselves, any attempt to rein in these special taxing districts (SDs) and increase transparency is welcome.
SDs are political subdivisions of the state established to provide very specific services and improvements, such as sewer infrastructure, fire protection, and neighborhood security. Their narrow, singular purpose is why they are known as “special.” In Missouri, SDs can be established to impose and collect tax revenue for a wide variety of purposes. In addition to CIDs there are drainage and levee districts, sewer districts, port improvement districts, nursing home districts, and fire protection districts, to name just a few.
As the auditor notes in his announcement, there are currently 74 CIDs in Kansas City and their use “is growing, and our past audits noted CIDs did not consistently submit required reports to the city, and also identified accountability and transparency issues.”
One problem with CIDs is that they may be created and impose taxes without a vote of the people. CIDs may be formed by nonresidential voters such as commercial landowners and developers. These districts need only a single constituent to be created. As a result, a single landowner can (1) propose a district, (2) cast the single vote to establish the district and approve its revenue sources and projects, and (3) appoint or elect the district’s board of directors, which oversees district business. In short, CID laws allow a single landowner or developer to completely control all aspects of the district.
Given the huge opportunity for abuse, it is important that Kansas City ensure that this important power to tax is respected. In our 2019 paper on these districts, Graham Renz and I suggested a number of reforms for the state legislature—one recommendation requiring the approval of the voters of the entire municipality was passed out of this legislative session. Municipalities may not be able to enact many restrictions on these districts, but they are required to approve their creation in the first place. This effort in Kansas City to shed light on city oversight is welcome and necessary, even if not sufficient by itself.