Aug. 24–What a difference one week makes.
A last-minute unity vote Thursday among Kansas City Council members means city voters will finally get a chance to vote in November on the future of Kansas City International Airport.
Last week, it wasn’t looking good for that outcome. The City Council deadlocked last Thursday with a 7-6 vote and couldn’t agree on a November ballot proposal for a new single terminal at KCI. After weeks of rancor and discord, they were still arguing over whether public or private financing was better and couldn’t agree on clear language for the Nov. 7 election.
But on Thursday, the deadline day for a ballot language decision, the council unanimously approved a compromise approach.
"It allows the voters to decide," said Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who agreed to adjust her initial ballot draft with language that was suggested by Councilman Jermaine Reed and polished by the city’s bond counsel.
The proposed ballot language seeks voter support to allow Kansas City to construct a new passenger terminal at KCI and demolish existing terminals as necessary, with all costs paid solely from money derived from the city’s airports and related facilities "and without the issuance of general airport revenue bonds unless such general airport revenues bonds have received prior voter approval."
In the spirit of compromise, Councilwoman Katheryn Shields agreed to drop her proposal for an airport revenue bond election. Those bonds are the traditional and probably cheapest financing method for a new airport terminal. But polling has shown that voters don’t favor public bonds. Plus, the four proposals that the city is weighing to actually build the new terminal focus on private financing approaches that may allow for faster and less expensive construction.
While some council members thought mention of airport revenue bonds was superfluous, others were relieved that it leaves the door open for future airport revenue bonds if that is truly the best way to pay for the improvements.
The main thing is for voters to realize that no general taxpayer dollars are involved, such as property, income or local sales taxes. Airport revenues come from passengers and other airport users, so people who don’t go to the airport don’t pay for these improvements.
Residents in Kansas City and throughout the metro area have argued about the airport’s future for more than five years, and Mayor Sly James said that setting the stage for the November vote is an important milestone.
"It has been a long, long trudge," James said. "It is good to be at this stage."
The mayor said later he was looking forward to talking to residents in the coming months about a critical decision in November for what would be a "generational project."
The council chamber was packed with people anxiously awaiting the council’s decision. The crowd included aviation officials, representatives of the companies vying to do the airport work, economic development advocates and mayors from Riverside, Parkville, Platte Woods and North Kansas City who want to see the new terminal at the airport.
"We are so supportive of this economic development," Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose said after the council’s vote. "It is important for Platte County."
While many residents have said they don’t want the existing airport terminals demolished, Rose said she thought public sentiment was shifting toward more support for this airport modernization.
Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce President Joe Reardon said the unified council vote sent a strong signal to the community.
"It’s a good day," Reardon said, noting that many chamber members are gearing up to support the campaign in favor of a new single terminal airport.
But many challenges remain, not the least of which will be to select the winning team to build and finance the new terminal.
A selection committee has been scrutinizing the four proposals, from teams led by AECOM, Burns & McDonnell, Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate, and Jones Lang LaSalle.
The selection committee plans to announce its recommendation Aug. 31. The City Council ultimately would need to approve a memorandum of agreement with the winning team, but it’s not clear how long that would take.
To ensure council support, Councilman Quinton Lucas introduced a measure Thursday that would require the council to sign off on the selection committee’s recommendation before the city manager negotiates the contractual agreement. Lucas’ measure will be debated by the council’s airport and finance committees, but that hearing date has not yet been set.
Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley
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