Friday, Dec. 28 2012 4:53PM
April election could be “bellwether” for other bond projects
Issues discussed for 2013 bond election is setting stage for future improvements
By Russ Pulley
As the Lee’s Summit City Council wraps up its decision on an April bond election, members are pondering the funding gap for other neighborhood projects.
The problem was recently highlighted by council discussion over whether to include $3 million for reconstruction of Orchard Street on the ballot.
A council sub-committee left that project off its recommendation, but Councilmember Ed Cockrell asked to have it added during the Dec. 20 council meeting. After some debate a split council voted to add it as a separate issue, along with cultural arts facilities and paved shoulders for Pryor Road.
The City Council will make its final vote on the package Jan. 10.
Council members also are likely to continue talking about the funding gap when the council finishes its strategic planning retreat this month.
Councilmember Bob Johnson said he thinks its time for the city to work on a long-term to plan get those smaller projects under construction, even if it means going to residents with a bond issue that requires a tax increase.
The Public Works department, he said, has done a pretty good job of distributing city resources and projects among council districts, given the funding restraints.
Johnson said that he doesn’t want the city get into a cycle of neighborhoods pitched in a race to see who could reach which politician first.
“That’s the wrong way to do it,” Johnson said.
Johnson added he wants Lee’s Summit to avoid following the path of Kansas City, which neglected its sewer infrastructure for many years. That city was forced into an expensive plan of catchup by the Environmental Protection Agency.
He said exactly what a future bond issue would entail must be based on scrutiny of projects waiting in line and more analysis by the city staff.
“We have a ton of needs in this city, in newer and in older areas,” Johnson said. “We need to start now on the inventory and have an overall plan on how to get ahead of this.”
Mayor Randy Rhoads said he’d also been thinking of the gap in infrastructure.
“It’s a recurring problem in a fast growing community,” Rhoads said. “The school district faces the same challenge.”
He said when the schools add a new school with “the latest and the greatest” the older buildings are left behind with older equipment or design.
The pockets of roads without sidewalks or curbs are a result of an older, small rural community that didn’t always have tough standards in place growing into a much-larger suburb.
Rhoads said early on those neighborhoods were happy to get a hard pavement instead of gravel roads.
Council members Allan Gray and Brian Whitley said they’d been working on getting a small section of sidewalk, a $16,000 expense, on Sampson Road to connect the Sienna at Longview neighborhood to other subdivisions.
But because it’s not near a school it’s very low on the priority list.
Whitley said a community improvement district isn’t practical for such a small project, because the legal expense and setting up a board would cost more than the project. Homeowners associations could do self-assessments for some projects, he said, but if the city completes such projects they are public infrastructure which answers questions of maintenance and fairness.
Gray and Whitley said a more comprehensive bond issue in the future might be an answer.
Gray said he became aware of the infrastructure gap when he was first elected, starting with complaints about curbs in his district. He said he was a leader in putting the curb program on a successful ballot.
“It’s frustrating to tell residents we don’t have a solution to meet their needs,” Gray said. “I’m willing to put everything on the table for consideration.”
He said the city also should look at creating a pool of funds that each year could be used for smaller projects. Cockrell said “I think we as a collective group need to have a better visioning discussion on how we’ll address those needs.”
He cautioned those projects cannot meet the metrics of a “return on investment” and council members would need to think in broader terms of the community, he said.
Councilmember Kathy Hofmann said adding Orchard Street to the ballot was important.
She said the difficulty getting it there highlights problems with the new processes the council is using. She said it is better to let city staff look at the priorities and bring a recommendation to the full council for approval.
She said other important projects are falling through cracks, such as widening Scherer Road near a fire station, where it is not wide enough for fire trucks meeting oncoming traffic.
She noted that I 2007 the city successfully put a block of storm-water improvements on the ballot to solve issues of neighborhood flooding.
Councilmember Dave Mosby said he thought the process used to pick projects was “desirable overall.”
He noted that about six months ago when city staff first brought the council’s attention to possibilities for a bond issue, staff recommendations for projects didn’t include Orchard or others like Ward Road south of Missouri 150, which got consideration because of council member requests.
He said he’d be in favor of using a similar process a few years in the future for another no-tax-increase bond issue. As the economy improves, the city’s bond capacity might grow and the city had not used its full capacity yet.
Mosby said the city still has about $7 million in bonding capacity without increasing taxes.
“We didn’t want to jump on it all right now,” Mosby said. “That didn’t seem to be a wise thing to do.”
Councilmember Derek Holland said the April vote on Orchard Street could give the council an opportunity to judge how to move forward.
Orchard Street and other areas admittedly need attention, he said, but ultimately the council needs to reflect the priorities of the community. Holland said that citizens like ear-marked projects so they can judge their merits, and traditionally Lee’s Summit hasn’t been a community that “Only looked at ‘what’s in it for me.’ We have looked at the big picture.”
“If the citizens deem it to be a high priority, this can be a bellwether,” Holland said.
Councilmember Rob Binney could not be reached for comment.
Rhoads said the city has been successful in completing bond-issue projects on time and on budget, with only a few exceptions, so generally it gets community support.
“It may not be a bad time to have that discussion, it may be the only way some of these things get done,” Rhoads said. “If the time is right, they’ll vote for it, if it’s not, they won’t.”