In the Northland, an uplifting TIF for a change

Tax-increment financing, a form of public subsidy for private development, has been getting some much-deserved scrutiny in Kansas City over the past few months.

TIF is popular among developers because it generates tax revenues that can be used to pay development costs. It’s been used to transform Kansas City’s landscape since the 1980s, but an increasing number of wonky civic types have begun wondering aloud whether things have gotten out of hand. The tool is not well liked among education and neighborhood activists, for example, who see City Hall’s attention to giving developers what they want in stark contrast to what they say is inattention to certain basic services. Indeed, such projects redirect tax funds from new developments away from the schools and libraries that would otherwise get the money.

Case in point: The North Kansas City School District has to bus kids who live within blocks of Maplewood Elementary School, because the public infrastructure there is not only crummy but also dangerous.

The Northland neighborhood around Maplewood — near Worlds of Fun, in south-central Clay County — is a post-World War II enclave where sidewalks are in short supply. This is particularly so along 52nd Street near Bennington Avenue, where kids could walk to school but for the lack of sidewalks along the well-traveled roads. Neighborhood leaders have pressed City Hall over the years to upgrade infrastructure, to little avail.

But one advocate, Jason Withington, didn’t give up. He found an ally at City Hall when Heather Hall was elected to represent the 1st District on the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council.

“In that portion of the 1st District, there are very old infrastructure issues,” Hall tells The Pitch. “Those children need to have a safe route to school.”

Together, they learned about an old TIF plan that had served its purpose but had a bunch of money left over: the Searcy Creek TIF, a 1993 plan that was passed to help build new sanitary sewer lines in the Northland to support growing residential and private development. 

TIF redirects future increases in property and economic taxes within a district into an account that can be drawn down by a developer to pay for eligible project costs. The Searcy Creek TIF had amassed $1.5 million when city leaders decided it was time to terminate it. (Update: The termination of the Searcy Creek plan occurred in 2013, at the behest of then 1st District council member Dick Davis and current mayor pro tem Scott Wagner.)

From that, $50,000 or so was spent on new traffic signals near Winnetoka High School. Another $250,000 was earmarked to the North Kansas City School District for sidewalks. The rest got transferred to another Northland TIF project.

Recently, Withington learned that the district would use that $250,000 to build about a half-mile worth of sidewalks along Bennington Avenue, going south from 54th Street until it meets 52nd Street, and then west until it meets up with the elementary school. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a tiny dent in the overall issue of modern, appropriate infrastructure in this area of the Northland. But, Withington says, it’s a start.

“It doesn’t solve any problems, because those kids still need to get to those sidewalks,” he adds. Still, it’s the type of fix that may start spark wider improvements near Maplewood. Withington says he understands there would be a $5 million to $8 million price tag to widen and improve about a mile stretch of 52nd Street and install sidewalks, curbs and stormwater drainage — a multi-year project, according to Hall.

For now, construction on the new sidewalks near Maplewood will begin at the end of the current school year and is expected to wrap up in time for the following academic year.

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