In the last few weeks, the city of Independence has taken two significant steps toward better services and stable city finances.
City Manager Zach Walker caused an uproar – but a needed debate – when early in the summer he presented a city budget that included changes to retirees’ health-care plans. He deserves credit for getting it on the table.
Retirees were vocal and clear about their concerns, and the City Council heard them.The council momentarily set those potential budget savings aside and made offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
City and retiree leaders sat down to look at the needs and the options. Here is the backdrop: The cost of doing business – employee pay and benefits, asphalt for streets, cars for cops, gas to mow parks – goes up over time but revenues are essentially flat, as cities depend largely on sales taxes. That’s a structural deficiency in Missouri government generally, and that’s another conversation, but it’s the situation Independence and other cities face.
The two sides talked, acknowledging the need for savings and the desire to maintain good health coverage. They worked it out. Retirees unanimously approved a plan to save the city $3.5 million a year, and this week the council unanimously approved it too. It’s an important move.
The other step was the voters’ approval last month of a use tax, which in essence is an extension of existing city sales taxes to online sales. This was overdue. It’s expected to raise $1.5 million a year – but there’s a catch. Half of the money is dedicated to hiring badly needed police officers and half is for the animal shelter. That does take pressure off the general fund, but it doesn’t add to the general fund.
This was an expedient and entirely needed move, but down the road it’s one more decision that leaves city leaders with less flexibility.
The city still faces significant long-term issues. Walker has put the backlog of needed infrastructure work at nearly $1 billion. Any number of historic sites need attention, but, sadly, city surveys of residents suggest that’s not a very high priority.
The retiree savings and the use tax make a difference, but Walker’s essential point still stands: The city, like many others, faces a long-term challenge in how to pay for basic services.