The Kansas City Star recently reported that Urban Summit activists have turned in petition signatures requiring a citywide vote for an additional sales tax to support development on the east side of town. While this effort is the logical conclusion of years of urban neglect and crony capitalism, it will likely do little to help the East Side.
The Show-Me Institute stands arm-in-arm with those decrying the decades of neglect suffered by the East Side. In fact, we authored the chapter that exposed the fact that city economic development policy favors wealthy developers in the Urban League’s “2015 State of Black Kansas City.” Kansas City leaders have for years turned a blind eye to the economic decline suffered by our urban core. Worse still, city leaders have actively pursued development policies that diverted important resources away from schools and libraries in that same community.
Just as Kansas City’s shameful past of red-lining and block-busting a generation ago aided and abetted racial segregation, subsidies for today’s wealthy developers have diverted property taxes away from important city services on the East Side and toward the millionaires and billionaires at Burns & McDonnell, Cerner, and VanTrust.
Kansas City has so hollowed out its tax base through these diversions that the city must borrow money to provide basic services like tearing down dangerous buildings and repairing roads. While Kansas City suffers a two-year spike in homicides, our cash-strapped police force has fewer uniformed officers than it had in 2011.
Desperate for the basic services that the city government should be providing, communities on the East Side have resorted to community improvement districts (CIDs). The Independence Avenue CID charges a one-percent sales tax in order to provide security and beautification—things residents feel they cannot get from the police or the parks department. As a result, families living in the urban core are paying a higher tax rate on food just to feel safe while they shop.
Vernon Howard Jr., senior pastor of St. Mark Union Church, was correct when he told the Star, “City, county, state and federal jurisdictions have not, to date, focused upon the inner city with the kind of zeal, investment, intentionality and creativity as have been vested within mostly white and wealthier neighborhoods and communities.”
I empathize with East Side leaders, but their solution may only make matters worse. Adding another sales tax means poorer residents will be forced to pay more out of their pockets to get services they should already be getting for their earnings taxes, property taxes, (already high) sales taxes, COMBAT taxes, and all the rest.
If Kansas City is to thrive, it needs to dramatically overhaul its taxing and spending policies. We need to limit our profligate spending on touristy frou-frou and focus on providing services quickly, efficiently, and compassionately; we need to stop subsidizing wealthy corporations and luxury high-rises; and we must focus on developing the things that make Kansas City great—rather than merely mimicking Portland or Denver or Dallas. Because as jobs and population numbers attest, we are losing that game.