Shawnee City Council goes for bigger property tax rate cut — ‘It’s time to do something’

The average homeowner would save about $5.96 per month on property taxes under the plan approved by the Shawnee City Council Monday. File photo.

At their meeting Monday night, Shawnee city councilmembers waved aside a staff recommendation for a half-mill property tax rate reduction and, instead, approved a two-mill cut instead, saying it’s time to give back to taxpayers in tough economic times.

The upshot: The decrease would bring the city’s mill levy rate from the current 26.004 to 24.004. The council set a public hearing for the rate cut for 6 p.m. on Sept. 12.

  • The larger decrease would save the average residential taxpayer $5.96 a month, versus $1.49 monthly savings for the smaller decrease discussed in earlier budget meetings.
  • It was approved after a sometimes prickly discussion between Jenkins and Mayor Michelle Distler, who made an impassioned pitch for the smaller rate cut because of concerns that the city may need the money for in impending recession.

Back and forth: “I think it’s time to do something that actually has some impact,” said Councilmember Eric Jenkins, one of those pushing hardest for the larger decrease. “This point-five stuff is dribs and drabs. You don’t even feel it.”

  • But Distler recalled the difficulties of the last economic recession and presented a long list of city needs, including a new fire station for the northeast part of the city, curbs, gutters and sidewalks, as well as stormwater improvements.
  • “I want to reduce the mill levy but we need to be responsible in how we do it,” she said. She also asked councilmembers to come up with a detailed list of what projects would not receive funding if the levy decrease cuts city funds too short.
  • Jenkins bristled, suggesting Distler had help from the city manager’s office in writing her comments: “For the mayor to sit up here and tell me I need to provide her with a detailed plan to justify how we’re going to spend the money for the next ten years is absurd. It ain’t going to happen,” he said.

The impact: Reducing the tax rate by two mills would mean $25.7 million less in tax revenue over ten years, according to staff notes.

  • A staff analysis also said that it would spend the city’s reserve funds into negative territory by 2032, endangering the bond rating and ability to pay for unexpected capital projects.
  • The analysis also said a two-mill reduction would likely result in debt financing for some items this year and next that the city was considering paying cash for, a move that could save the city $1.8 million in 2022 and 2023, according to that analysis.

Arguments for a tax cut: Councilmembers have been discussing the budget in a series of meetings since May. Because of increased home values, the question has not been whether to reduce the tax rate, but by how much.

  • The majority said they believe the city can withstand the impact of the tax rate decrease, given that the reserve funds are at 46%, which is higher than city policy.
  • Jenkins challenged the staff’s analysis, noting that the city’s economy should also be growing to take up some of the slack.
  • “I’m getting tired of the smokescreen,” he said. “I’m tired of people BS-ing the people of the community,” about budgets when the total tax payments continue to go up.
  • Councilmember Kurt Knappen echoed that: “I don’t think the sky is going to fall if we drop the mill levy,” he said. Knappen had earlier supported a smaller, one-mill decrease but said he could go along with the larger one.

Another sticking point: A decision last year to devote $2.1 million to city employee retention bonuses was also frequently mentioned on Monday night, with some councilmembers saying their constituents were especially displeased about that.

  • Councilmember Tammy Thomas said she can identify with the people who are suffering financial setbacks and struggling with higher prices, and she faulted Distler for suggesting the monthly savings might not be worth the budget cuts.
  • Distler recalled years when the city had fallen behind on infrastructure and services to the point that an old fire truck broke down on its way to a call.
  • She said she realizes that people are hurting, but, “It’s these same people who want the crosswalks and the sidewalks, the stormwater and streets paved and the public safety and quick response time.”

Final vote: Councilmember Jill Chalfie was the only vote against the two-mill decrease, saying, “I think slow and steady is a much more responsible way to go.”

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com