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Sales Tax Extension In Voters’ Hands

Kansas City voters will decide August 5 whether to approve a 20-year extension of an existing quarter-cent sales tax to fund operations of the Kansas City Fire Department.

The additional tax revenue is crucial to enabling the department to meet its ongoing needs, Fire Chief Paul Berardi told Kansas City Hispanic News. Berardi’s priority list for the additional tax revenue starts with replacing the department’s aging vehicle fleet – a roughly $5 million-a-year expense – and then paying for firefighters’ salaries and various other operational expenses, including the continued remodeling and rebuilding of stations.

The ballot measure, Question 1, would extend for 20 years the 15-year, quarter-cent sales tax that voters approved on Aug. 8, 2001, and that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2002. The tax will expire on Dec. 31, 2016.

The existing sales tax, from Jan. 1, 2002, through July 15 of this year, has generated $238.7 million, City Manager Troy Schulte told Hispanic News. The fire department has spent $108.3 million of that money, or about 45 percent of the tax’s total revenue through April 30, on firefighters, and for some support personnel, Schulte said.

“Since we first started the tax, we have remodeled or built 12 fire stations and hired 105 firefighters,” Berardi said. “We’ve also enhanced the data collection tools, (including) the CAD (computer-aided dispatch), which allows us to do data analysis on incidents, since 2011.”
The fire department’s annual budget is $140 million.

According to Patrick Reisenbichler, assistant to the fire chief for human resources, the department has the following budgeted positions for direct emergency services: 683 firefighters, 198 fire captains, 116 paramedics and 83 emergency medical technicians (EMTs). These numbers exclude command staff, chief officers, support and administrative staff, and some other categories of staff.

“It’s time for us to replace the fleet,” Schulte said explaining why the fire department needs the tax extension for 20 years instead of the current 15-year life. “When I go to borrow money, I can’t say my tax revenue that pays the bills expires in two years and try to borrow money for seven years. I can’t get a good interest rate for debt financing.”

Schulte addressed criticism that the language of Question 1 doesn’t specify what the money would be used for, by saying that the language of the current 15-year measure was very specific and that state law governs the language used on the upcoming ballot measure.
“Now it’s ongoing facilities maintenance, personnel and equipment (that the tax revenue will pay for),” he said.

Berardi said the department has “a 13-year history of spending our money the way we told taxpayers we would. … We’d be giving up the ability to do a five-year plan (if the measure fails.) The fire department has done a needs analysis, and the continued need of the fire department has not diminished. It’s only increasing.”

The Kansas City Council and voters approved a charter amendment that directs the council to do five-year planning.

If the city were to seek a bond issue instead of an extension of the existing sales tax to fund the fire department, it would be limited to long-term facilities, “and a sales tax gives us more flexibility for equipment and personnel,” Schulte said. “I think it’s a decent proposal to maintain an excellent fire department,” he said. “I’m pretty confident that it will pass. I think we’ll do OK.”

But Paul Rojas, former Missouri House representative and lifelong Westside resident, thinks the tax extension doesn’t need to pass Aug. 5 and could wait until after the current tax expires at the end of 2016.

“If it’s not due yet, they’ve still got time,” Rojas said. “People haven’t gotten straightened out paying their county property taxes yet. Senior citizens are hurting right now. Instead of putting everybody on the spot, city council members should come out and say if they’re for it, and why.”
Mike Cambiano, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 42, is for the tax extension and clear about why.

“I think at this point it’s almost imperative to keep the department functioning at its current level,” Cambiano said. “If it fails, we could be looking at a substantial reduction in services. Waiting until the last minute isn’t good business. And we need to create facilities for the women on the department’s staff.”

Sixth District Councilwoman Jan Marcason said she thought it was “important to continue to fund the fire department’s operations.”
“I’m confident that voters will approve it,” Marcason said. “If not, we’ll put it on the ballot again as soon as possible.”