Think voters in Kansas City will get a say on whether the city issues billions in bonds to build a new airport terminal? Think again, and be prepared to foot the bill.
Kansas City’s recent past is full of rosy development projects that did not pan out; KCP&L (Kansas City Power & Light) is chief among them. As a result, the city — and the taxpayers who fund city operations — are on the hook for about $13 million each year. Funds used to support the project are being diverted from other worthy causes.
Aviation Department Administrator Mark VanLoh says: “One common misconception the city must overcome: People think Kansas City will have to raise taxes to pay for a new terminal. It will not.” Maybe, maybe not.
Let’s review airport revenue. Dave Helling wrote in the Kansas City Star about how a new terminal would struggle to raise revenue:
There aren’t a lot of ways airport users could generate that kind of revenue. Ticket sales are already taxed, and air travel here is slumping. The airlines could pay more in rent, but other airports would pounce if the cost at KCI gets too high.
Indeed, VanLoh has admitted in press interviews that airports in Branson, Mo., and Wichita, Kan., are already taking market share from Kansas City because they are paying airlines to land there. Increasing rents or landing fees are not a realistic option.
If the airport is unlikely to be able to generate the revenue needed to support those bonds, can’t we turn to the federal government for help? VanLoh says “no,” telling the Star that large-scale federal participation in the project faces headwinds.
If the city were to issue $1.5 billion in revenue bonds in order to pay for the new terminal, it certainly would require a vote of the people. (Note that the $1.5 billion they are now considering is already a 25 percent increase over where we started, at $1.2 billion.) But what of Kansas City’s 2nd District City Councilman Ed Ford’s assertion in November that the project is “going to happen regardless of whether our citizens want it to happen”?
It turns out that not all bonds require voter approval. These bonds, known as Special Obligation Bonds, are not considered debt in the same way as other bonds and therefore require no public vote. Kansas City uses them all the time, and in fact is preparing to issue some this year to pay for the streetcar. Special Obligation Bonds were created to address a city’s immediate need — say, a broken water main — when it does not have the resources to fix it or the time to seek a vote. Kansas City issued two such bonds in 2012 amounting to $75 million that funded computer upgrades for the city’s revenue collectors, garages, and the refinancing of the ill-fated Citadel Plaza project.
Unlike revenue bonds, which do require a public vote, these bonds are normally secured by property. In this case, the Aviation Department may secure the $1.5 billion debt with the airport itself. While the city may not have to raise taxes, as VanLoh says, it is well within reason that the city will have to cover those bond payments from the general fund just like we cover KCP&L.
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