With an $800 million infrastructure bond package likely to go before voters in April, Kansas City Mayor Sly James recently told KCUR that when he took office, the city had $6 billion in deferred maintenance. He told The Kansas City Star that, “Basic infrastructure has to be paramount. We have to take care of some immediate needs.” James has been in office for more than five years. Why has it taken so long to address these needs?
Mayor James resists making commitments on how a proposed $800 million bond issuance will be spent. In a December 16, 2016 radio interview, Mayor James said the following (starts at 17:34):
I don’t know how [the proposal is] a blank check when you can sit and look at the stuff that we’re planning to do. You can’t sit down and specify what’s going to happen in 2029. You can say, “we’re going to be fixing roads and here is a list of road that we’re going to be fixing.”
So there is a list of projects city leaders want to address; they just don’t want to commit to which projects will get first priority (18:10):
We can give them a list; we have the list. The list is available. But to sit around and say we want absolute specificity—that’s not going to happen; it’s an impossibility. And here’s the problem with it, because the same people that are complaining that it’s not specific enough–if we put it in a list and say, “we’re going to do this, it’s going to cost X number of dollars and we’re going to do it in 2018,” and then we have to come up with $50 million for the Buck O’Neil Bridge, then what we’re going to be hearing is, “Oh, the city broke its promise because they said they’re going to fix the road that near my house and they’re spending the money on this bridge.”
Kansas City voters can understand the need to address unforeseen circumstances. But what Mayor James and city leaders seem to want is a fixed, concrete commitment from voters for 20 years of tax revenue without providing a fixed, concrete commitment on how they’ll spend it. The recent debate in the Council about roads, sidewalks and animal shelters is evidence of this. (The companion resolution the Council has offered is nonbinding.) If the goal is to maintain flexibility given an uncertain future, why not ask for smaller, shorter-term tax increases to address the spending needs that can be specified?
Kansas Citians are very aware of how poorly the city has maintained infrastructure; they have reason to be skeptical of city promises of fiscal restraint. After all, the crisis we are in now occurred because leaders did not address immediate needs or make basic infrastructure maintenance paramount—including for the first five-plus years of Mayor James’ tenure. Why should voters now believe that that city leaders will act any more responsibly? Are taxpayers willing to gamble with another $800 million on the city's roulette wheel of debt?