Fire district raises concerns about service cost to tax-exempt property during KU Hospital permit hearing

The KU Med complex along Shawnee Mission Parkway is exempt from property tax.
The KU Med complex along Shawnee Mission Parkway is exempt from property tax.

What seemed to be a routine renewal of a special use permit (SUP) for the Westwood Campus of The University of Kansas Hospital this week became a forum for Consolidated Fire District No. 2 to raise concerns about the cost of service to tax-exempt properties in the district.

The hospital property requires the SUP because it is zoned for commercial office use. Prior to 2006, the 400,000 square-foot campus housed Sprint headquarters. The SUP to allow for health care or special care facilities for humans was first approved by Westwood in 2006 and its last renewal was for a five-year period starting November 2009.

When the SUP came before the city’s planning commission this week, Consolidated Fire board member Jim Donovan, a Westwood resident and former city councilor, appeared with Fire Chief Tony Lopez to suggest that a condition of the SUP renewal be that the hospital discuss a contract for service with the fire district.

The fire district, Donovan said, made 39 calls to the Westwood campus in 2013 (2014 data is not available yet) to an entity that “didn’t pay a dime.” More than 600 properties in the district are tax exempt, he said, and account for approximately $1 million in lost tax revenue to the district, which has an $11 million annual budget, supported only by property tax. “We are in somewhat of a box,” Donovan said.

The cost of a fire call is pegged at $2,337, according to the district, making the response to KU worth more than $90,000 in that one year. Most of those calls were medical, Lopez said, with some alarm responses. No actual fires were reported at the campus. When a property requires service but does not pay property tax, Donovan said, that loss has to be spread among those who are paying. Among tax-exempt facilities, only Claridge Court in Prairie Village had more calls in 2013 than KU, he said.

“Decisions that cities make have an impact on the district, Donovan said. “We need to make our communities aware this is going on. As the year progresses, you are going to be hearing more about the fire district and revenue plans.”

Commissioner David Waters said he would encourage the city council to look at exempt property: “I think some good points were raised.” He noted the commission can only deal with the planning issues. An attorney for the hospital responded that the hospital is exempt from taxes by Kansas law and KU does not represent a special situation.