ocal historian John Dillingham feels he can put the proposed $1.2 billion bistate tax initiative into perspective.
An extremely broad perspective.
“Abraham Lincoln received zero votes in Clay and Platte Counties. He was elected president without our help. He didn’t need us to win,” Dillingham said about pre-Civil War, Missouri, where most counties north of the Missouri River were pro-slavery.
“But the south goes on to lose the war, and when it comes time for reconstruction…well, to the victor goes the spoils,” Dillingham explained. “South of the river — Kansas City — was not that big an area then. They had only a few thousand people. But they wanted stockyards, bridges and railroads. In Platte County, we may have wanted it too, but it wasn’t up to us. We were the ones who lost. We wanted to be left alone, to get our crops in, build our barns and get our lives turned around.”
Fast forward a century and a half, and Dillingham points out that the cornucopia of towns and villages that sprang up all over the metropolitan area after the Civil War are geographically irrelevant today.
“Today, our kids take the interstate and they just want to get to Arrowhead in time for kickoff and KCI in time for takeoff,” Dillingham remarked. “They don’t care what state, county or town they’re in.”
Be that as it may, proponents of the tax measure, known as Bistate II, have been approaching voters on a county-by-county basis, if only to tell them that we are all one entity.
The logic behind the bistate tax says that even though amenities may be found across county or state lines, the entire region enjoys them. Therefore, the reasoning goes, each county in the bistate region of Missouri and Kansas should shoulder the burden when it comes to fixing them, or as is the case for Bistate II, creating something new.
The ¼ cent sales tax has two components. The first is the renovation of the Truman Sports Complex, home to the Royals and Chiefs. The second is for a metropolitan cultural fund. Both the sports and art initiatives would share in the tax; both would be allotted 1/8 cent from the tax.
Due in part to its size as compared to the rest of the metropolitan Kansas City (Platte County is the smallest county in terms of population in the proposed 5-county bistate region), Platte County’s involvement in the tax is not deemed essential by backers of the plan. In order for the tax to take effect, it must pass only in Jackson, Johnson and Clay Counties.
The tax is expected to sunset in 12 to 15 years, according to officials. By then, the tax is expected to have earned sufficient funds to pay off the bonds used for the renovation of Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums.
The measure, which is already on the ballot in Jackson and Johnson Counties, will be voted on by the Clay County Commission in either late July or August, following a public meeting on July 19. Platte County’s involvement, while not essential, is viewed as being very strategic: the county represents the fastest growing area of the metro, and the passage in Platte could mean the difference of paying off the bonds by an estimated three years.
On June 17, Platte County Commissioners received their first presentation on the tax from Kansas City Chamber President Pete Levi.
“The need is really obvious,” Levi told the commission.
According to Levi, our sports teams needed help, saying that Kansas City represented “the smallest market” in the NFL and an upgrade to facilities would keep the city’s professional sports franchises in town and help them generate more income. He touted the plan’s “metropolitan culture fund,” which would build a new performing arts center and distribute as much as $50 million per year to area art programs and organizations. No action was taken by the county commission at that meeting and Platte County District 1 Commissioner Michael Short said that while the county commission hasn’t made a formal decision about placing the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot, it would likely make such a determination “sometime in August.”
Short, who serves on the Kansas and Missouri Metropolitan Cultural District Commission (commonly referred to as the Bistate Commission), hinted that the issue would make it to the ballot.
“(The commissioners) have a general philosophy that voters ought to get the opportunity to vote on these issues,” Short remarked on Friday.
Short said the county had a lot to gain from taking part in the tax.
“We would receive 4 percent of the total that’s available for direct county allocation (art program funding) and the county would also become eligible to apply for the regional funding (grants) whenever we present something that is regional in nature,” Short said. “We also benefit from the regional community aspects – the sports centers, the (proposed) arts center and regional arts program.” Carving the bistate pie
According to the bistate formula, Platte County would receive about $10 million in arts funding over the life of the initiative. The ceiling could rise if the amount of sales taxes increased in the county over that time as well. Neighboring Clay County would receive nearly $33 million.
There is little question, however, that the tax will most benefit Jackson County and the Kansas City urban core. The Truman Sports Complex, which houses the Royals and Chiefs stadiums, will receive almost $600 million to finance renovations there. A potential downtown performing arts center will receive about $50 million in financing (private funds for the project are expected to reach $250 million) and 37 percent of the direct county allocation for arts programming.
Johnson County will receive nearly 41 percent for art program funding, but will not be the recipients of any “brick and mortar” projects, even though a potential soccer stadium for the Wizards was included in the original bistate plan. This reason, and the fact that the county does not have any direct negotiating power with the Royals and Chiefs are cited as being top concerns among Johnson County voters.
There are other albatrosses around the neck of Johnson County voters and officials, however. Kansas State Senator Kay O’Connor, whose district includes Olathe, has said she wants to repeal the original bistate tax compact between Missouri and Kansas due to a perceived lack of accountability and has criticized the commission because it isn’t an elected body. Other county activists say the measure should be placed on the ballot by signed petition only. Despite such dissent, the measure was placed on the ballot after a 5-2 vote, with Commissioners John Toplikar and Susie Wolf voting against it. They later said their opposition was based largely on accountability issues and the alleged “failure” of the Union Station concept.
Hurdle #1: In the shadow of Bistate I
The effects from the first bistate tax, one of the largest of its kind in American history, are still being felt.
That tax was approved by four of the metro area counties – Clay, Jackson, Johnson, and Platte – and was used to restore Union Station near downtown Kansas City. The tax also created a U.S. Congress approved political subdivision between Missouri and Kansas and raised more than $118 million for the project. In addition, more than $39 million was raised from federal agency grants.
The results have been decidedly mixed.
While Union Station’s dramatic restoration has been well publicized – more than 10 million pounds of debris removed, the roof replaced, millions of gallons of paint and miles and miles of electrical wire – the station’s shortcomings have been equally made known. So well known, in fact, it is being trumpeted as the main reason to deny the tax in Johnson County.
In February, Steve Rose, chairman of the Johnson County-based Sun Publications, seemed to tie the future of any future Bistate tax to the resignation of the Union Station management staff. In an interview with The Business Journal, Rose called on station leaders to resign.
“They’ve made a big bunch of mistakes,” Rose asserted. “They need to step aside and it needs to be done all over again.”
The station’s high profile failure of its Science City museum and planetarium has been a source of constant criticism from the public. Recent reports of squandered development opportunities at the complex’s surrounding property added further fuel to the fire among those calling for change with station management. On June 1, Turner White, the station’s CEO, resigned his position, giving way to Sean O‘Byrne, the station’s interim director. O‘Byrne, a downtown developer who used to serve on the Kansas City Tax Increment Financing committee, has wasted little time in making big moves at the station. He recently purchased a collection of antique trains and slashed the station’s exhibit hours, completely shutting down Science City and all other station attractions on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Friday, the station announced that it would slash manager’s salaries and layoff 30 employees.
It is hoped that these moves will save the beleaguered station and help it avoid an operations deficit for the remainder of the year. Others are hoping that the moves will validate the entire bistate taxation process, even though, as Union Station staffers are quick to point out, Bistate II will not effect the station directly.
“We are not a designated recipient of Bistate II,” explained Sarah Biles, a Union Station spokesperson. “If we were to receive any of the funds, we would have to go through the (grant process) like any other organization.”
Hurdle #2: Educating the voters
The decision to go to the voters with the current bistate initiative was made by a vote of the Board of Directors of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce on May 24. On that day, they endorsed the current proposal and agreed to campaign on behalf of the initiative, calling on other civic groups to join with them in the effort.
The civic groups are the ones really driving the initiative, underscored Short, and not the Bistate Commission.
“The commission has not really been a key player by design (in the attempted passage of the Bistate II tax),” Short explained. “The commission is an oversight agency. It has not taken a role or position and I don’t see then doing that. The entities that have really pushed this are the Kansas City Metropolitan Arts Council and other civic leaders.” That said, the influence surrounding the initiative is voluminous. One key player in the campaign is Greater Kansas City Chamber Chair Karen Pletz, one of ten special advisors to Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes and one of Kansas City’s 20 Most Influential Women according to the Central Exchange, Kansas City’s leading professional women’s organization.
“Our best future is a regional future,” Chamber Chair Karen Pletz said at a briefing for the media the day after the chamber pledged their support. According to Pletz, since February, nearly 50 meetings on bistate have been held with elected officials, and civic and community leaders.
At their Platte County stop, Levi and representatives from the chamber’s counsel, Lathrop and Gage, said that the economic activity surrounding the tax would be immense. The two sports team’s activities alone would impact nearly 4,400 jobs in the region, Levi said. The arts, according to an informational sheet handed out by the chamber at the meeting, would generate nearly 4,600 jobs.
Most of all, Levi promised that bistate would bring “a first rate arts and cultural experience” to a city that currently pays less than $1 per citizen per capita on the arts, compared to St. Louis and Denver who, Levi claimed, spend more than $15 per capita. Ironically, the official organization of the Kansas City Crossroads District, the area that is widely recognized as the metro area’s “arts district,” seems to be unaware of the potential impact of the tax. Like Platte County, they said they are just considering the tax at the moment, perhaps underscoring the need for an increased push from bistate organizers to provide more information on the issue.
“We haven’t really talked about that as an organization,” said David Dowell, vice president of the Crossroads Art District Community Association. “Because it’s an arts related issue and because the arts are so important to the Crossroads District, we may decide to take a stand on the issue in the future.”
Never mind the future, says Dillingham. The key has always lain in the past. He believes the story of Lewis & Clark can lead the way now – even where a bistate cultural tax is concerned.
“The recent Lewis and Clark commemoration shows that entities along the river can work together,” Dillingham said. “We’ve got to get off that fiefdom mentality.”