The reason for this state of disrepair is simple: City leaders have failed to adequately pay for the building's upkeep. The same is true for the rest of the city's buildings -- indeed, for the rest of the city.
Kansas City has nearly $1 billion worth of backlogged chores, according to a recent study paid for by the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City. These tasks include everything from paving streets and sidewalks to repairing bridges and unclogging storm drains.
"It's just terrible," says Eula Inloe. "The streets are just terrible. They [city officials] just don't do anything unless you holler and holler. Then maybe."
Inloe has lived in the Waldo neighborhood since the early 1970s. In all that time, she says, she can't recall if the city has ever resurfaced Wornall Road, her neighborhood's main thoroughfare. Now Wornall has the dubious honor of being one of the worst stretches of road in Kansas City.
Kansas City's maintenance procrastination problem isn't new. The Chamber's recent report on unfinished work is almost identical to one the organization commissioned in the mid-1990s.
Through the late 1990s and the early years of this decade, Kansas City officials claimed to have diverted an increasing amount of money toward the unfinished work.
But these claims were misleading. Instead of making cuts in other departments to pay for more basic repairs, city officials used stealth accounting tricks to divert a large portion of the increased basic repair funds back into the city's general budget.
"It's a custom that's been going on at City Hall for quite a while," says City Manager Wayne Cauthen, who discovered the problem shortly after he was hired last spring.
Here's how it works: City officials craft a budget with an increase in funds for, say, street and bridge repair. Then, in a separate, fine-print section of the budget, they charge various expenses to the city's Public Works Department (which is responsible for street and bridge repair), such as salaries for engineers and accountants or phone bills. Some of these are directly related to the repair projects. But many are not. For instance, in some cases, entire salaries for city accountants have been charged to these projects, even though those accountants devoted only a couple of hours to them.
"It's nothing illegal, nothing nefarious," says Troy Schulte, the city's newly appointed budget director. "But it's defeating the purpose of what we're trying to do in the first place."
Schulte estimates that as much as $8 million is inappropriately charged to basic repairs each year. These charges have steadily increased, even as city officials, in the face of a budget crunch, have decreased the amount they spend on the repair backlog. This makes the backlog bigger and, in turn, frustrates Kansas Citians like Eula Inloe.
Cauthen says he'd like the city to stop employing such funny math. "But it'll probably take awhile to move away from that diet," he adds. The budget, he explains, is too tight.
Councilman Jim Rowland, who chairs the city's Budget and Audit Committee, feels the same way. "I'm opposed to it [the accounting technique] because it sucks money out of capital improvements," he says. But, he adds, "I don't know how to fund it back."
Meanwhile, the city's long list of unfinished chores has moved into the political spotlight. Council members recently agreed to put $300 million worth of bonds before voters in April. Most -- $250 million -- would go toward the backlog. If spent wisely, this money could have a significant effect on the lives of people like Inloe. It would cost $91 million, for instance, to catch up on road repair.
But the list totals far more than $250 million: The Chamber of Commerce report estimates repair costs at $141 million for crumbling city buildings, $79 million for park maintenance, $65 million for boulevard curbs and sidewalks, $27 million to rehab bridges, $20 million for streetlights, $18 million for storm drains, and so on.
According to the task force that first convened in the late 1990s to address the problem, the city needs to continue spending more general budget money annually to eliminate the backlog in addition to taking out bonds. But that's not part of the City Council's current deliberations.
At a public meeting about the bond issue, city officials testified that the debt service of these bonds will likely be paid from the basic repair budget.
Thanks to their accounting tricks, city officials could brag that they had increased this budget to more than $50 million. Recent budget cuts have reduced the number to $36 million a year. But without the dubious stealth charges to other departments and programs, the budget could be as low as $28 million.
Debt service on $300 million worth of bonds, on the other hand, would cost the city $24 million a year. Without true cuts elsewhere in the city's budget, Kansas City could be right back where it started -- with a growing list of chores and no means to pay for their completion.