Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Residents, officials sound off on KC budget

By Seann McAnally

South Kansas City residents and officials are upset that some programs to help the needy will get reduced funding in the new city budget.

Meanwhile, city officials face tough choices and say funding for one program means cuts for another, and urge residents to look at the “big picture.”

South Kansas City residents gathered at the Hillcrest Community Center on March 3 to comment on the city’s budget.

The $1.3 billion budget is down 1/10 of a percent from last year. It would eliminate some 80 non-safety related city jobs, impose a salary freeze for all city employees, and reduce paid holidays from 10 to 6. There are also reductions in funding to the Jackson County Sports Authority, Economic Development Corporation, the Jazz Museum, Bridging the Gap, the Community Assistance Council, and other programs. Those cuts don’t sit well with some residents.

“The Community Assistance Council cannot continue to operate with these cuts,” said Jerry
Mitchell, of the Ruskin neighborhoods. “We need to look at the budget and see where you can come up with some additional funds.”

Mitchell also urged the Council not to cut funding for legal assistance to neighborhoods that has been used in the past to help homes associations deal with vacant homes.

Rev. Dale Shotts, of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, said churches are willing to partner with the city to keep programs alive. He said South Kansas City’s funding situation has been getting worse for years.

“We’ve been racing downhill,” he said. “It feels like we’re in a bobsled. We are already operating with one leg and one arm.”
Meanwhile, city officials stressed that the city has less money this year than it has in the past, and tough cuts and fee increases have to be made.

Troy Schulte, interim city manager, said the city will have to roll-up its tax levy to make up for a decrease in property tax assessments of some 3.5%. Other increases include doubling the cost of trash bags from $1 to $2, new fees for liquor law violations, an 18% increase in restaurant fees, and other fee increases. Water and sewer rates would increase by 10% and 15%, respectively.

Mayor Mark Funkhouser called for eliminating city funding for the sports complexes, adding funding for four community center positions, the paint program, city legal services, and expanded 311 services, and an automated trash collection system.

He said he is occasionally frustrated by “unrealistic” comments from people who tend to look at only the part of the budget that affects them.

“What we hear a lot is ‘don’t cut this program’ or ‘don’t cut that program,’” Funkhouser said. “At public hearings, I haven’t heard anyone saying, ‘let’s take care of city employees who are being laid off.”

Councilman John Sharp, who represents South Kansas City, spoke out against a cut to the Community Assistance Council, which is funded through the Community Development Block Grants program. Current proposals show that CAC would get some $110,000 from that source, plus $15,000 from another – about 45% of the funding the organization had last year.

“That’s not nearly enough,” Sharp said. “There’s a great deal of concern in the Ruskin and Hickman Mills area, as well there should be, about this horrendous proposal to make funding cuts to CAC.”

The council will vote on that portion of the budget – CDBG funds – today at 3 p.m. (Editor’s note: The Jackson County Advocate will post those results at Thursday evening).

“One of the unfortunate things about this budget is that staff recommended funding for new programs, while eliminating funding for proven safety net programs,” Sharp said.

Among those programs facing cuts are the Homelessness Prevention Program, the Paint Up Program, the Emergency Home Repair Program, and funding for legal aid to neighborhood groups.

“The combination of those cuts doesn’t amount to much in terms of saving money, but it will have a devastating effect on South Kansas City,” Sharp said.

April Cushing, of the Ruskin Heights Homes Association, agreed.

“Here we have a budget that calls for putting sidewalks around schools, but cutting programs for the impoverished,” Cushing said. “That doesn’t make sense. People should be put first, and sidewalks second.”

Pam Meeks, program coordinator for CAC, said the organization is bracing for the impact of the budget cuts. Meeks said there is no other “safety net” program available in South Kansas City and that she did not understand why CAC was targeted for cuts.

“Obviously there will have to be some cutbacks,” she said. “Hours will be cut back and services will be cut back. The board (of directors) is looking at a worst-case scenario.”

Funkhouser said he understands that emotions run high, especially when faced with losing funding for a useful program – but every dollar that goes to one program can’t go to another.

“It’s important for people to look at the big picture and the financial welfare of the city as a whole,” he said. “If you choose to fund one thing, what other thing do you cut?”

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