Local officials on Wednesday spoke strongly in favor of keeping the Independence sales taxes to support police and fire services.
“The one thing I can tell you, if it doesn’t pass, we are in trouble,” Kirk Stobart, president of Local 781 of the international Association of Fire Fighters, told members of the city’s Public Safety Services Review Committee.
The committee is looking at the city’s public safety sales tax – one-eighth cent each for fire and police service – set to expire in 2016. The committee is to make a recommendation – drop the tax, keep it, or expand it – this fall, and the issue would likely go on the ballot in 2015.
The tax has funded new fire trucks and several remodeled or replaced fire stations. (One station, No. 5 on 35th Street near Sterling Avenue, remains on the list.) Still, Stobart said the department is woefully short on money for training.
Mayor Eileen Weir said the Police Department simply wouldn’t be able to keep its current level of services without the tax.
She stressed that citizen surveys consistently show that public safety is the community’s top concern.
“It’s so far No. 1 that it almost goes without saying. … We can’t do anything in the city if people don’t feel safe,” Weir said.
Police Chief Tom Dailey mentioned the city’s 2007 study that pointed to the need for 55 more officers but said the city now actually has fewer officers. He said there’s a perception that the city has the money, somewhere, to add officers, and it simply isn’t true.
“The real thing citizens have to ask is, ‘What do we want to give up?’” he said, mentioning other city services such as parks and health services.
“Every year, you’re going to fall further behind, as far as the criminal element moving into our town,” he added.
He said the city faces hard choices. It has more property crimes than any metro city, including Kansas City.
“This isn’t Mayberry,” he said.
The chief said the data clearly show the department can temporarily put an emphasis on, say, burglaries, but then other types of crime will spike. Then it can hit those.
“What we can’t do is sustain it,” he said.
“But the fact is,” Dailey added, “… you’re going to have to have more cops, period.”
Stobart also suggested that the city begin providing ambulance service, rather than relying on AMR. City firefighters respond to medical calls and can begin treatment on the scene, but it’s AMR that transports a patient to the hospital – a point Stobart and others said is not widely understood.
Stobart said firefighters often wait 10, 15, even 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, and he said when people call 911, they expect the city to respond and fully address their problem.
“We can’t force AMR to put more ambulances on the street,” he said.
Weir added that the city has no control of the company’s prices or quality of service, and she suggested Stobart’s idea was worth looking into.
No one from AMR was at Wednesday’s meeting.
Stobart said he has backed the idea of the city running its own ambulances for some time.
“And if handled right and done properly, it can be a revenue-generating business,” he said, adding that city employees are more vested in the community than a for-profit company.
However, Keith Querry, chairing the meeting, said the ambulance idea is beyond the committee’s scope, and he added, “This tax, to me, is so critical to be continued, let’s don’t muddy the water.”