Mo. Firefighters Rally to Keep Fire Safety Sales Tax

July 26--The Kansas City Fire Department wants voters in August to approve a 20-year renewal of its quarter-cent fire safety sales tax.

Since the 15-year sales tax first took effect Jan. 1, 2002, it has generated more than $200 million to build six new stations and remodel six more, plus hire 135 firefighters and acquire a modern dispatch system.

Now the department says it needs voters to extend that tax to retain most of those firefighters, upgrade its fleet and possibly continue station improvements. The money covers more than 10 percent of the Fire Department's annual $140 million budget.

"If it's not renewed, it would be devastating," Fire Chief Paul Berardi said, adding that the money will be used for everything from "Band-Aids to diesel fuel to fire trucks to fire stations to people."

The tax raises about $18.5 million annually for the department, with about $13.5 million going for salaries and the rest for debt on building and equipment improvements.

No organized opposition has emerged to the measure, Question 1 on Kansas City's Aug. 5 ballot.

The department has a list of desired projects if the tax is renewed, including new fire stations far north and far south. But the ballot language does not promise any specific projects, giving the department great flexibility to spend the money as it chooses for "operation."

Doubts persist about how much money actually would be available for new projects.

City Manager Troy Schulte confirmed that the bulk of the sales tax will still be needed to cover salaries for 105 firefighters out of a workforce of 1,200.

While the tax doesn't expire until 2016, Mike Cambiano, the local firefighters union president, said his organization didn't want to bump up against renewal of the city's 1 percent earnings tax, also in 2016. Renewal now would also help with long-range planning.

Cambiano said that the most pressing needs, aside from pay, are to upgrade eight fire stations that lack women's facilities, and to replace aging hook-and-ladder trucks and pumpers.

Berardi said the department ideally would spend about $5 million per year on fleet replacement in the early years of the tax, but Schulte said that's not likely to happen because salaries and debt payments eat up too much of the money. Schulte hopes to address fleet needs through a less-expensive lease-purchase arrangement.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

Copyright 2014 - The Kansas City Star

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