Taxes, TIF, legal pot: city council members talk shop

Marcason, Sharp, Ford and Curls.

Marcason, Sharp, Ford and Curls.

By Joe Lambe

From tax increment financing to marijuana, four outgoing city council members spoke their minds Wednesday.

Ed Ford, John Sharp, Jan Marcason and Melba Curls – all term limited out – spoke at the Citizens Association forum at the Downtown library.

Dave Helling of the Kansas City Star moderated the event and tried to steer it, with limited success, to what could be done better in the future.

Discussion swirled on several topics, including city taxes and spending.

The council members agreed that the city has a good mix of taxes, and supported the 1 percent earnings tax as a fair way to get money from people who live elsewhere but work in the city and use its services and infrastructure.

Helling noted that the city budget has gone from about $500 million in the 1980s to almost $1.5 billion.

Ford said 74 percent of the general fund budget now goes to public safety like the police and fire departments.

Too much goes to the fire department, Ford said, and the whole department should be revamped.

The biggest mistake he saw in office was merging the ambulance service with the fire department, he said.

Sharp, chair of the public safety committee, said he believes the fire department is just now adapting to having the ambulance service “bolted onto it” and getting control of overtime costs.

He also said he believes police and the city can save money by merging more operations.

Marcason agreed that current public safety costs are not sustainable but said they must be reduced carefully.

Police and fire get the highest satisfaction levels in citizen surveys, she said.

What about the constant tension about TIF and about spending for big projects versus basic improvements?

Even the seats spoke on the matter. Library director Crosby Kemper III left a letter on each attacking TIF for taking money from libraries and the school district.

Helling noted that the city still pays $14 million a year for bonds used for the super TIF used for rebirth of the Power and Light District.

Ford said, “Look at the Downtown we had in 1991 and look at the Downtown we have now – that came at substantial costs.”

He also said TIF does not take money from other taxing jurisdictions because the projects would not be done at all without it.

Sharp said, “The only way we can compete and raise revenue is by bringing more business to Kansas City.”

But Sharp also said he supports some more money being spent on basic services as opposed to “BIG PROJECTS,” he yelled, the ones that get attention and praise.

Marcason, chair of the finance committee, said she regrets the increased tensions between large project supporters and neighborhood services, but the projects are needed for revenues and growth.

Asked if cities should take more action on social problems, things like guns and the minimum wage, council members spoke of a big problem with that.

Missouri lawmakers have already preempted cities from acting on guns and the minimum wage and are preempting them on more and more things.

Ford said: “Elections have consequences and when two thirds of the general assembly are not only Republicans but Tea Party Republicans, do you wonder why we can’t get Medicaid expanded?”

A state preemption could also take shape for another matter that Ford said he supports: legalizing marijuana.

There are too many laws and too many people in jail, he said.

As for the form of city government, including term limits, Ford said he supports it the way it is.

Curls, who was also term limited out after serving as a state representative, said she is not a fan of term limits.

No one spoke against what is called our weak mayor form of government.

Sharp said the mayor was not as important in the 80s and 90s but Mayor Sly James has stepped up the position.

He has hired more support staff, does more to set the agenda and is leading more than past mayors, Sharp said.

But it is best to keep him as part of the city council overseeing a professional city staff, Sharp said. “If you have a bad mayor, you’re glad you have this form of government.”

They all agreed on another thing going into a future that will include at least seven new council members.

With the decline of newspapers, they said, city staff and citizens must work harder to communicate with each other and keep informed.

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