And there it was, the government's screw-you on top of my overpriced cold drink: a 10.225 percent sales tax.
Unless you come from a state like Oregon or Montana, you've grown accustomed to paying sales tax. And for the most part, sales taxes in Kansas and Missouri are in line with similar burdens in other parts of the country. Denver residents pay a little less for things, and folks in Memphis a little more.
But my coffee break came with two extra kicks in the shins. First, by simply buying a beverage in Kansas City, Missouri, I paid a 2 percent tax on restaurant grub, levied in addition to existing city, county and state sales taxes.
Second, the Starbucks is inside what's called a community improvement district (CID), an area where property owners have asked the City Council to charge an additional sales or property tax. The 39th Street CID charges an extra 1/2 percent.
CIDs take up where regular government ends, collecting money for additional services, such as signage, marketing and beautification. Kansas City, Missouri, has at least 14 of them.
Similar to CIDs, transportation development districts (TDDs) levy extra taxes for roads and parking. The first TDD in the area, established in 1997, widened 210 Highway near what was then Station Casino (now Ameristar). Today there are 20 TDDs in cities in Jackson, Cass, Clay and Platte counties, according to the state.
Property owners like these special taxing districts because they quietly sip money for improvements and services that government may be reluctant to provide. Politicians like them because they make things happen without hard choices having to be made. "The concept is great, because they're not taking money away from the city or the schools," Kansas City Councilman Ed Ford tells me.
While user fees are a sensible way to raise money for things, there's something unnerving about the sudden ubiquity of these special taxing districts.
Like to shop and eat at the Country Club Plaza? A 1/2 percent extra sales tax is in place.
Martin City? Same.
Zona Rosa? Brace for a 1 percent charge.
These taxing districts work their magic on largely unsuspecting consumers who never approved the tax increases in the first place. Upon the recent release of an audit of the program, Missouri Auditor Susan Montee said TDDs "are about as close as you can get to taxation without representation." Montee's office found instances where developers, serving as directors of the TDDs, contracted with themselves or did not competitively bid jobs (as the law requires).
I'm happy to pay an extra penny for coffee if it helps a festive area like 39th Street compete with strip-mall hell. But the fast-multiplying number of CIDs and TDDs indicates that developers are beginning to look at them as an entitlement. Developers of new shopping centers planned for North Oak Trafficway and North Antioch Road have asked for — and received — CIDs on top of generous incentive packages from the city.
I wrote a feature in this week's issue about economic-development deals in the Northland that haven't produced the jobs they promised. One, Renaissance North, went bust. Last year, before the bank foreclosed, the developer of the ill-fated project, Kurt Degenhardt, asked the city for a CID, which would have included a one-time $62,700 payment for the developer and annual "management fees" of $28,000 a year.
Degenhardt asked for this money even though the project was years behind schedule and ultimately never completed. The request could have been: I'm a dipshit. Reward me. (The city approved the CID after the bank stepped in; it is in place for any developer interested in rescuing the project.)
Still, I might give these special districts a pass were it not for the 2 percent restaurant tax Kansas City charges on top of everything else. The tax pays for the renovation and expansion of Bartle Hall, the city's convention center. This tax bugs me because it amounts to a wealth transfer from residents to visitors.
The convention business is fool's gold. There simply aren't enough proctologists and Hot Wheels collectors to justify the orgy of convention-facility building that has taken place in Kansas City and other cities. The academic research in this area looks very different from the propaganda that tourism offices put out.
The conventioneers who find their way to KC are, by and large, deadbeats. Bartle Hall has hosted three different church conventions this summer. I grew up in one of the faiths that came to town, and I can state with confidence that those worshippers did not leave a lot of money in Westport or on the boats.
So what are a few dimes on an order of pad Thai? Well, there's reason to believe that Kansas City's high sales-tax rates have already cost us something.
At a City Council meeting to discuss transportation issues this spring, Mark McDowell, the outgoing chairman of the Regional Transit Alliance, mentioned an earlier plan to put a streetcar back in operation. This was a few years ago, when the Transit Alliance had received a donation of an old car.
As McDowell explained at the meeting and in a follow-up phone call, the Transit Alliance worked with business leaders on a plan to build a short route from Union Station to Bartle Hall. The best way to pay for it, they figured, was a TDD.
But the idea was scrapped. Why? McDowell says a TDD around Bartle Hall would have made Kansas City's already high taxes on food and lodging even more forbidding. "While we were trying to attract people with the streetcar project, we would be kind of pushing them off by the costs," McDowell told me.
So Kansas City stayed transit-poor.
But, hey, we get to play host to badge-wearing evangelicals when they're not meeting in Louisville.