Page 5 of 6
James and the city were able to locate about $17 million in other grants, but the city plans to issue and to back about $80 million in bonds to pay for the construction of the streetcar line. Most of that repayment would come from a 1-percent sales-tax increase for businesses in the TDD, such as Novorr's and Horowitz's, with other funding derived from a variety of assessments (read: taxes) on property in the TDD (see sidebar). The streetcar proposal on the ballot calls for the city to contribute a dinky $2.3 million to the line's construction and $2 million a year toward a projected annual operating cost of $2.8 million.
That puts the heaviest tax burden on commercial-property owners, many of whom don't live within the TDD and are therefore unable to vote on the streetcar. This idea — that, say, a 23-year-old barista renting a loft in the Crossroads has more say in this election than a longtime downtown business owner who lives in Brookside — has sparked more than a few cries of "taxation without representation."
"This is a strange, regressive tax that we didn't even have an opportunity to vote on," says Dick Snow, owner of Bazooka's, the strip club at 1717 Main. "The people voting on it aren't going to be the ones paying the taxes on it. It's just not a fair tax."
"They [property owners] don't have a say on the school district's levy, either, and it's 10 times the size of the streetcar's assessment," Johnson counters. "And, by the way, they only had 3-percent turnout in their last school-district election — 3 percent voting on a much bigger budget than the streetcar. So this whole idea that businesses don't get to vote — I'm sorry, but businesses are not people. They don't get to vote."
Crosby Kemper III, the director of the Kansas City Public Library and a downtown resident, objects to the proposal's tax increases and the city's rising debt load. He considers a streetcar in KC a pointless luxury item.
"This is a cultural amenity that has an appeal to upscale 20-somethings and 30-somethings, and it will only marginally increase the likelihood that people will move downtown," he says. "On top of that, the city has picked a low-density area without any real commuter usage. Bus routes actually serve the working poor. They help them get to work. This streetcar will be used by tourists, shoppers and lawyers who can afford to bill a two-hour lunch. I call it the take-a-lawyer-to-lunch trolley."
He continues: "You can justify projects like this in New York, Washington, San Francisco — cities with huge traffic problems. We don't have a traffic problem here. We don't have a dense population. It's just such bad public policy."
Ryan Maybee, of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, at 1924 Main, is both a downtown business owner and a Crossroads resident. He's voting for the streetcar.
"I will say that, from a business owner's perspective, I'm concerned about the continuing increase in the sales tax down here," he says. "That's a bigger issue to me than the property-tax increase. Our property taxes will go up, but it's really such a small amount that it's completely irrelevant. The owner of our building and I have worked out a deal where we're going to split the increase in taxes. But it's virtually nothing. It's definitely not enough of a reason to slow the clear renaissance we've been seeing downtown over the last five years."
If this streetcar proposal is defeated — which seems unlikely, given the results of the TDD formation election — don't expect it to go away.