Last week, Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County Mayor and CEO Tyrone Garner announced budget recommendations to set property tax mill rates at the calculated revenue neutral rate. This would mean that the levied property tax would decrease by about 8.6 percentage points. The decrease in revenue would be offset by an increase in sales taxes in KCK as well as reducing parts of the budget. However, this proposal was met with opposition from Wyandotte Commissioners who argued against the plan.
Mayor Garner was elected last year, at least in part, on a platform of representing Wyandotte County residents’ concerns about high taxes and low development. As seen in the graph below, since 1997, Wyandotte County’s property taxes have increased by 231%, dwarfing inflation and population over the same period.
High property taxes push people out of their homes. In Wyandotte County, a Land Bank has confiscated around 3,500 properties from delinquent taxpayers for the purpose of refurbishing them and selling them back to the community as a form of development. According to the Land Bank, 88 of the 124 properties sold in 2018 were vacant lot sales with no rehab. Considering that the Land Bank estimates that 43 percent of the properties were vacant already, there has to be a better way to make these properties available to buyers that don’t punish families who aren’t able to pay the county’s growing taxes.
It’s good that Wyandotte leadership recognizes the first rule of tax reform: reducing taxes must be met with a reduction in spending or another revenue source to avoid a deficit. The tougher part comes from finding where to reduce spending. However, there are some good places where administrators can start.
Before cutting the budget, county officials need to find what can and should be reduced. This means having simple, clear, and comprehensive data on public spending. Publishing budgets and financial reports in an easily understood and analyzed format allows for greater data analysis so places for short-term cuts are separated from long-term expenditures such as debt service.
The fundamental thing to remember is that every city and county has to provide the same basket of services (education, transportation, public safety, etc.) as other localities. However, some do this more efficiently than others. For example, a 2020 KPI report showed that in 2017, Wyandotte County spent $347.58 per resident on General Government funds compared to $161.77 per resident in Douglas County and $183.87 per resident in Shawnee County – two counties with similar populations to Wyandotte. These cost differences come from different choices on how to approach and spend taxpayer dollars. This means there’s wide room for discretionary budget adjustments.
Immediate savings can be found by deep dives into discretionary spending. Audits on expenditures such as advertising, travel, cell phones, active landlines, outdated equipment, maintaining empty buildings, and more should be subject to yearly analysis to determine if they are a meaningful contribution to state endeavors. Just a little oversight goes a long way here.
Not replacing employees who retire or otherwise leave also has big potential. Kansas state and local governments have about 37% more employees per capita than the national average; right-sizing local government employment can save millions of dollars or allow money for pay increases for remaining employees.
City and county officials have tremendous control over spending. Should the brand new, but unnecessary, government building be built? Or should this project be sidelined so that taxes don’t increase? Should millions be given in subsidies to out-of-state developers, or should that money stay in the pockets of the taxpayers who already live in Wyandotte? Making KCK somewhere to live means keeping it affordable through low taxes.