Churches say they shouldn't have to pay special assessment for streetcar

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - As voters are deciding whether to expand the streetcar line down to 53rd Street in Brookside, some church leaders along the extension route want to pump the brakes.

Every property within the Transportation Development District would pay a yearly assessment fee to finance the streetcar - whether they're tax-exempt or not.

MAP OF THE TRANSPORTATION DEVELOPMENT DISTRICT

"I know that the proponents of the funding mechanism say it's not a property tax, but it's based on property value," Rector Stan Runnels said.

For churches and other non-profits, the first $300,000 of market value is exempt from the assessment. But many churches like St. Paul's Episcopal on Main Street own more than one property well above $300,000.  Runnels says his assessment would come out to around $12,000 a year, which would force them to cut from their charity food programs.

"We work on very, very thin margins, and we channel all our money, a large portion of our money, into our outreach," Runnels said.

The city says the assessment is legal, and it's a way to have everyone within the TDD contribute.

"A special assessment is not a tax. There's plenty of legal precedent that dictates taxes are what's exempt on these properties, not special assessments," said David Johnson, Chairman of the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance.

The KCRTA says they've seen no issues with the special assessment along the current downtown route, and pose it as a benefit.

"The parishioners would have the option to take the streetcar to church, which I think is a very valid option, and we've seen that downtown," Johnson said.

St. Mary's Episcopal Church, which faced with the same issue four years ago, worried their parish couldn't afford its $4,000 assessment.

Father Gary Ziuraitis at Redemptorist Catholic Church on Broadway says his parishioners' money should be used for God's purposes, not man's. Their main building is worth more than $3 million, and their assessment comes out to around $4,300 a year. Ziuraitis told 41 Action News he does not support the expansion, and his parishioners won't benefit from it, despite being a couple blocks away from Main.

The streetcar would run right in front of St. Paul's, but Runnels says his current parish wouldn't immediately benefit from it because many of his parishioners live outside of the TDD.  He said it would have to extend even further south for it to be a convenience.

Johnson said the KCTRA has seen widespread support for the expansion in midtown

"Everyone is contributing. That's the equity argument, is everyone is contributing along the route to the success and financial stability of the streetcar," Johnson said.

Runnels says his church loves and supports the streetcar but still thinks the city is sidestepping the law.

"If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, it's a duck," Runnels said. "If you can simply by wordsmithing say, well this is a special assessment, what's to prevent anything in the future from becoming a special assessment?"

Folks living and working along the streetcar route can apply for a mail-in ballot to vote on the expansion until May 23.

Find a ballot application and see the TDD map here.

Voting starts June 20 and ends August 1.

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