Kansas City voters will decide on June 2 whether to raise taxes for the fire department. But with the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowing all other civic matters, it may be a very low turnout election for a crucial issue affecting the city’s fire protection and tax burden over the next 15 years.
The proposal is to raise the existing quarter-cent fire sales tax to a half-cent sales tax through 2036. It would generate an estimated $21 million more per year, or more than $300 million over the life of the tax, to pay for new ambulances and fire trucks, fire station upgrades and protective safety gear.
“We’ve got to find new revenue sources,” said Kansas City Firefighters Union President Tim Dupin, adding that the sales tax is the best available option. “We believe the citizens see the value of having the fire department adequately funded.”
The fire department also gets about $157 million per year from the city’s general fund, mostly for personnel, although that amount might be somewhat reduced if voters approve the sales tax increase.
Critics worry Kansas City’s tax burden is already too high, especially for low-income residents. And, they say, the economic downturn during the pandemic makes any additional tax even more oppressive.
“We’re already at a saturation point with our sales tax,” said Kansas City resident Angie Lile, who has opposed taxpayer subsidies for luxury housing and other lucrative developments in the city.
Lile said she is very supportive of Kansas City’s fire department but believes now is not the time for a tax increase.
“Thinking about hiking the sales tax at a time when our most vulnerable are affected by that, it’s just not right,” she said.
The overall sales tax in Kansas City is already nearly 10 cents on the dollar in most places. That includes the city’s dedicated 3-cent sales tax, plus the state and county sales tax and various community improvement or transportation levies.
Fire officials say the tax increase is crucial now because the city must replace its aging ambulance fleet, fix fire stations that have numerous maintenance issues, and provide life safety equipment for both first responders and citizens.
“It’s expensive,” conceded Fire Chief Donna Maize when she addressed a city council committee back in January. “You know, we look at all the things to keep our responders safe, keep them healthy, and be able to provide the best service to our residents. Personal protective equipment is a huge issue.”
Every firefighter costs about $80,000 with pay, pension, benefits and equipment.
Maize outlined $4 million in personal protective equipment needs, and that was even before the coronavirus was on everyone’s radar. A partial list of other needs includes $14 million for other safety equipment, $17 million for new ambulances, $26 million for new pumpers and nearly $9 million for fire station remodels. A new training academy, to replace the current 1960s-era facility, will cost an estimated $75 million.
Kansas City Finance Director Tammy Queen told the council that, if the tax is approved, finance officials would work with the fire department to figure out what is the best way to stretch those additional dollars.
The city council approved the ballot measure for April, but Gov. Mike Parson ordered the election postponed due to stay-home orders this spring.
Most council members supported the tax proposal. Mayor Quinton Lucas was absent for the vote to put it on the ballot and had not stated a position about the merits of the tax. But his spokeswoman said in an email to KCUR that Lucas will endorse the fire tax ballot measure.
Voters typically have been supportive of resources for the fire department. The quarter-cent fire sales tax was first levied in 2002, and voters renewed it in 2014 to extend through 2036.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said she is a strong proponent of the tax increase. “I believe now more than ever, the situation we’re in has shown the importance of having our first responders properly equipped,” she said.
Jan Parks, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Kansas City Economic Development Reform, said her group has not taken a formal position and there is no organized opposition to the tax. But she said she personally has concerns.
“It certainly is not that we don’t think public safety is essential,” she said. “But I think right now we are overtaxed, and so much has been diverted to affluent developments.”
Dupin said firefighters pay the tax too and he’s not unsympathetic to those concerns. But he said the fire department is not responsible for the city’s approach to developer tax incentives.
“I think people realize in the community that the fire department is more than just fighting fires,” he said. “I think they’ve seen the importance of firefighters throughout this pandemic. We don’t shy away from the community when they are hurting, and we are actually their safety net.”
With about 1,300 positions, the department already gets a huge chunk of the city’s general fund. Whatever it gets from the city, the police department usually also wants. The city also has a quarter-cent public safety sales tax earmarked for police equipment and facilities, which is set to expire in 2026.
Some people have said the fire department should try harder to save the city money. They point to other fire departments, such as the one in Oklahoma City, which covers a larger geographic area but has 1,030 positions and an annual budget of $164 million, compared to the $194 million budget this year for the Kansas City Fire Department.
Maize told the city council that the department has spent the sales tax money responsibly so far, using $47 million of the funds to repair or replace 12 fire stations and other sales tax funds to extend the life of the vehicles as long as possible.
“We attempt to utilize it to our best advantage,” she said.
Still, no tax increase is an easy sell in Kansas City. In 2019, voters rejected, by a nearly 2-1 margin, a proposed three-eighths-cent sales tax increase for early childhood education.
This election could be decided by a small percentage of voters.
Kansas City Election Director Shawn Kieffer said turnout could be less than 10% and possibly as low as 6%, although absentee ballots have been coming in steadily.