The KCI advisory group’s final report doesn’t square with all the facts

At some point, Kansas City’s leaders might consider being honest about Kansas City International Airport.

For the last year, City Hall and its Aviation Department have taken well-deserved arrows for the clumsy way they have tried to sell the single-terminal airport concept to a skeptical public.

The latest example is a final report issued on June 11 by the mayor-appointed Airport Terminal Advisory Group that, in part, outlines “common misperceptions” about the Kansas City International Airport discussion while offering a few of its own.

One section of the 24-member ATAG’s report says the public seemed to believe that money raised by the Aviation Department through airport parking, concessions and ticket fares gets siphoned by City Hall to fund regular municipal duties.

“No airport revenues can be used for general Kansas City municipal services or capital expenditures,” reads the ATAG report, written by committee co-chairs Bob Berkebile and David Fowler.

But that’s not a misperception; it has happened before.

In 2010, the city took out a $10 million loan from aviation funds to fill shortfalls in the tax-increment financing ledger. (TIF is a development tool that uses property and economic activity taxes to offset project costs.)

Of course, because it’s a loan, the city has been paying the Aviation Department back – with 3 percent annual interest – and will continue doing so until 2017.

Which brings us to another ATAG report whopper under the “common misperceptions” section: that taxpayer money is not used at the airport.

The money the city used to repay that loan came from its general fund, a roughly half-billion-dollar pot where earnings and property taxes go. That money is then spent on services such as firefighters and sidewalks – and in one instance, repaying an Aviation Department loan.

The ATAG report isn’t the first instance in which someone has claimed that aviation money never goes to the city and vice versa. Kansas City Mayor Sly James repeated that claim in his State of the City address at Park Hill High School earlier this year.

Then he repeated it during a May 7 press conference at City Hall when ATAG made its single-terminal recommendation.

The Pitch asked James that day whether he knew if the city had ever taken a loan from the Aviation Department. James referred the question to City Manager Troy Schulte, who confirmed what The Pitch already knew.

The 2010 loan might be couched as an isolated incident, but the city had considered taking from the Aviation Department once before. And again, it was to finance a shaky project.

In 2009, city officials considered borrowing $23 million from the Aviation Department to prop up the ill-fated Citadel Plaza project at 63rd Street and Prospect.

That disaster fell apart before the city could extract money from the Aviation Department. The city instead spent $15 million of its own to settle a lawsuit brought by Citadel’s developers, who couldn’t get the shopping center built just off Highway 71 near Research Medical Center.

The ATAG report came out a little more than a week after The Pitch‘s cover story detailing the city’s troubled salesmanship of the single-terminal idea (“Hijacked,” June 5, 2014), including overstated or untrue claims made by city officials about environmental and security problems at KCI.

The KCI matter has been a turbulent issue for City Hall. The City Council seems to favor the single-terminal concept but also appears to realize that a large segment of the voting public views it as a major expense for something that may not be a pressing need.

Of course, as the ATAG report accurately put it, there won’t be a tax increase associated with building a new terminal. Still, if travelers in Kansas City and the surrounding suburbs use a newly fashioned airport, it’s likely they’ll be greeted with higher-priced parking, concessions and possibly ticket fares to account for the expense in paying off debt for a single terminal.

Calling increased costs for Kansas Citians something other than a tax doesn’t change the fact that it’s more money out of their pockets.

KCI’s future is in voters’ hands now. If the city issues bonds, voters would have to approve them at the ballot box.

When a group of single-terminal skeptics under the name Friends of KCI last year suspected that the city might circumvent a vote by privately financing KCI improvements, they started a signature drive to require voter approval on any major airport construction.

When that time comes, it’s hoped that the city makes a better, more factually grounded case to voters.

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