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.