Kansas City Voters Approve $315M Sales Tax Increase To Fund Fire Department Needs

Kansas City residents voted once again on Tuesday to raise their sales taxes to pay for equipment purchases and facility upgrades the Fire Department says it needs desperately.

Unofficial results showed more than 54% of residents voted “yes” on the question, which increases sales taxes by 1/4-cent — $21 million per yearfor 15 years. Voters in every Kansas City county supported the measure. The closest the vote came was in Platte County, where unofficial results showed just over 52% of voters supported the hike.

Fire Chief Donna Maize said she was grateful residents “were willing to support the Fire Department again.”

“I think the morale of the department will improve, and so will our ability to respond to the needs that we’ve responded to for the past 150 years,” Maize said, adding that the funding was important as emergency medical calls to the department have risen in recent years.

Competition with the global coronavirus pandemic as well as the short ballot made the campaign for the sales tax relatively quiet. The Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters’ political action committee spent nearly $100,000 supporting the measure, but no campaign committee was registered for or against the tax increase. The group has received more than $100,000 this year from the Kansas City firefighters’ union, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 42.

The union’s president, Tim Dupin, said supporters did no direct outreach to voters and instead relied on a direct mail campaign because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kansas City Fire Department already receives a portion of its budget from a dedicated sales tax. Since 2002, the city has levied a 1/4-cent sales tax for the department’s capital expenditures. Voters extended it in 2014. Tuesday’s vote increases the tax to 1/2 cent, and both portions expire at the end of 2036.

“We’re very excited and happy that the citizens of Kansas City once again came out to support their firefighters and paramedics, especially during these challenging times with the pandemic and the unrest in the city,” Dupin said.

The department plans to use the tax proceeds — which it estimates to be about $315 million over 15 years — to upgrade stations, buy new trucks and ambulances and replace its 55-year-old training facility. More than 20 years after several female firefighters sued the city for sex discrimination, there are still stations that don’t have facilities for all firefighters.

“Our number one goal is always saving lives and protecting property, but along with that is protecting our employees as well,” Maize said.

Despite saying repeatedly that he was not supportive of any new taxes or tax increases, Mayor Quinton Lucas told The Star last week he would vote in favor of the 1/4-cent hike because the city’s budget couldn’t support much-needed expenses of the Fire Department.

In a statement after results came in, Lucas said the city had once again shown its “support for building a safer community and taking care of the women and men who put their lives on the line each day.”

“I thank them for the faith they placed in our leadership to deliver the basic services Kansas Citians should expect.”

When the sales tax proposal was introduced to City Council members in January, Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, 4th District at-large, told her colleagues they had to move quickly to put it on the April ballot to replace firefighters’ protective equipment, which Maize said at the time was woefully out of date.

But the April election didn’t happen. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delayed all elections as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the U.S.

In turn, the City Council voted to dip into reserve funds for the $3.6 million gear. They planned to replenish the fund with the tax proceeds if the measure passed.

With the COVID-19 outbreak still spreading, officials on Tuesday had to conduct an election with just one-quarter the number of polling places the city usually has and a third of the volunteers.

Just over 35,000 people voted on the question, compared to the more than 68,500 who came out during last year’s mayoral election.

From The Kansas City Star