UG Commission moves forward with 2-mill property tax reduction

After a lengthy budget discussion tonight, Unified Government commissioners reached a consensus on a 2-mill property tax reduction.

The budget now moves to final approval at the 7 p.m. meeting July 28 at the Commission Chambers, City Hall, lobby level, 701 N. 7th St., Kansas City, Kan. The 5 p.m. budget meeting July 28 has been canceled.

Earlier, UG Administrator Doug Bach had proposed a 1-mill tax reduction for the $345.7 million budget and a 2-mill tax reduction for the following year.

The UG anticipates $12 million in additional revenue for 2017 from the early payoff of the sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds at Village West.

The commission did not make any additional cuts to programs for the 2-mill reduction, as proposed by the administrator. Body cameras for some of the police force are still in the budget, but the allocation for the first year of the program is $400,000, not $1 million as originally proposed. Bach said the program was gone over and revised, and it may now more closely resemble the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s body camera program. There should be enough cameras for patrol officers, according to officials, although it is a smaller number of cameras than originally proposed. A lot of the program’s cost is in the infrastructure and storage of photos.

As Commissioner Harold Johnson noted, tonight the UG Commission liked to have its cake and eat it, too.

The commission rejected the administrator’s proposed budget revision of cutting some of the new projects to have enough for the 2-mill reduction, instead deciding to take the funds from the proposed addition to the UG’s fund balances. The fund balances are similar to reserves and are being built up after being depleted during the recession. There will still be some additional funding going to the fund balances, even with the 2-mill reduction, according to UG officials.

Commissioner Jim Walters noted that the last budget had been conservative, with the UG ending the year with more funds than predicted.

He supported the quiet zone program for K-32, which is proposed to have a noise mitigation program for trains in the Edwardsville area in the first year, if there is an agreement made with the city of Edwardsville. The UG funding would come from the county side of the budget.

Commissioner Gayle Townsend also did not want to give up the new programs. She said she was concerned that so many of the good programs they were focused on could take a few hits with the administrator’s 3-mill reduction proposal. For example, the blight reduction program would have lost a couple code inspectors, street repairs and items people can see. “Even though mill reduction was a big request, the issue remains what are people really going to see, whether or not it’s a 3-mill reduction. They’re going to see potholes not repaired, grass not cut, they’re going to see blight,” she said.

Johnson said he liked to mitigate as much volatility as possible, whether the budget is going up or down.

“We need to take a more disciplined, deliberate approach to lowering the mill rate, whether that be by somewhere in the middle, 2 percent, I’m not even saying 3 mills is enough, we might be able to do more over an extended period of time, if a plan is in place that we can be held accountable to, to make sure those things happen, which also allows us to mitigate the volatility and not have to cut so much on the front end,” Johnson said.

In the second through fifth years, with the $12 million in place each year, the commission could have the wherewithal if it stayed focused and committed to mitigate the volatility and to stay committed to its approach, he said.

Commissioner Angela Markley said she and Commissioner Brian McKiernan had been working with the UG’s new blight reduction program, and she would like to see those new positions kept in the budget. She said those were the issues they got the most calls about. Also, she supported the body camera program as it was the chief’s highest priority, and it needed to be taken into account.

Most of the commissioners, including Commissioner Jane Philbrook and Commissioner Melissa Bynum, were in favor of keeping most of the new programs.

Commissioner Bynum proposed the 2-mill reduction and restoring the cuts, while not increasing the fund balance as much as was proposed. In answer to her question, the administrator said he had budgeted conservatively the penalty payment from the Hollywood Casino for not building a hotel, and he had included only a half-year’s payment in the budget.

Commissioner McKiernan said as the UG tries to restore service to the level of excellence to the community, they can’t get that immediate reduction to the mill rate as they would like to. As they provide excellent services, that does mitigate somewhat the lack of a mill rate reduction, he said. He agreed with Commissioner Bynum’s idea of the 2-mill reduction and the lower fund balances. He also agreed with Commissioner Johnson’s idea of being more strategic, starting well in advance of next year’s budget.

Commissioner Hal Walker led the effort to get the commission to reduce taxes. He said he thought taxes should be reduced more than 2 mills, but he would go along with the majority of the commission. He said most of his phone calls were about reducing taxes, and that residents were sold on the idea of Village West with the promise of reducing taxes.

He added that he doesn’t mean these are not good programs that are being implemented. “I have witnessed budgets 32 times at least, and this budget does what other budgets have done – it gores your ox. The things you want are the things that are looked at,” Walker said. “I am extremely disappointed on a personal level, not that I think any of you are not making sense … but I really think we haven’t kept faith with the public.”

This was not what he expected two years ago with the promise of a windfall and new money. While he concedes everything on the list is something they should be doing, he said the residents are telling him to spend the money on tax reduction.

Walker also said he planned to vote against the Board of Public Utilities payment in lieu of taxes fee, which also will be considered Thursday. No change was proposed to the BPU PILOT fee. Walker said he’s voted against it for three years now, as residents were told several years ago that it would be lowered.

Commissioner Mike Kane said the local government lost a lot of former revenues such as the machinery and equipment tax, as well as other revenues from the state, over the past several years. No one foresaw that the local government would lose revenues when they made promises about lowering taxes years ago, he said. “When something happens at your house and you lose $100 a month of income, you adjust accordingly until you find a way to be more prudent with your monies,” he said.

Three speakers appeared at the public hearing on the budget at 5 p.m. Monday. Dennis Harris spoke in favor of the Wyandotte County Fairgrounds funding; Marcia Rupp spoke in favor of public safety funding including a fire station; and Daniel Welch spoke in favor of the parks.

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