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Inside the Legal Standoff Over Kansas City Police Funding

Kansas City’s police board is trying to use the courts to increase police funding. Advocates are worried it could bankrupt the city.

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Above image credit: The proposed budget for the next fiscal year allocates $280.7 million for the Kansas City Police Department. The city says this is exactly 25% of the city’s general revenues. (Zach Bauman | The Beacon)

When Kansas City’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year takes effect on May 1, a quarter of its general revenue will be directed to the Kansas City Police Department, as ordered by a new Missouri constitutional amendment.

The budget proposal now being considered by the Kansas City Council allocates $280.7 million for KCPD. According to Mayor Quinton Lucas’s office, that amount meets the 25% funding requirement without exceeding it. In other words, $280.7 million is exactly 25% of the city’s general revenue, calculated as roughly $1.12 billion.

Although the minimum funding level is enshrined in the state Constitution, the mathematics behind calculating that number is more complicated. In reality, the different components of Kansas City’s budget that make up the “general revenues” are scattered around the 700-page budget.

And the city isn’t sharing much about what those components are.

The Board of Police Commissioners, the state-appointed governing body for KCPD, has sued the city, alleging it is undercounting its general revenue. If the commissioners gain access to the city’s budget formula, it could become evidence in their case. And if a judge rules in favor of the police board, the city could be forced to redirect millions more dollars to the police department’s budget. Some observers say this could signal disaster for the city’s finances and slow development to a halt.

Activists and community groups want to see the city’s math, too, for different reasons. If they can calculate the minimum funding level, they could potentially lean on the City Council to trim excess police spending.

Though the precise mathematics remain unclear, a Missouri statute and a 1955 Missouri Supreme Court decision, which guide City Hall’s budget decisions, show that KCPD is entitled to a cut of most city revenue, including park concessions, pet licenses and even some earmarked sales taxes.

For years, the city’s allocations to KCPD were rarely questioned. But last year, the Missouri legislature and voters across the state decreed that the minimum budget share for Kansas City police should be increased from 20% to 25%.

People inside and outside of City Hall say that move has opened a can of worms that could leave less money for other city services and widen the rift between the state-run police department and Kansas City’s locally elected leaders and their constituents.

Here’s a breakdown of what the budget questions are all about and how a looming police board lawsuit could have the potential to bankrupt the city.

Missouri Law and Court Rulings

In response to questions from The Beacon about police funding allocations, a representative from the mayor’s office said the city follows the law when making its calculations, including Missouri statute and state Supreme Court guidance.

“Until 2022, nobody has ever questioned whether the city’s calculation of general revenue was improper or inappropriate,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Mayor Lucas has always supported funding the police and will continue to support funding the police.”

Unlike all other major U.S. cities, Kansas City does not have control over its own police department. It is required to fund police operations and can recommend how the money should be spent. But under the state-controlled system, which was first established by a Confederate governor on the eve of the Civil War, the police board has the full authority to move funds around the budget at will, sometimes without the city’s knowledge.

A Missouri Supreme Court decision in 1955 outlined the details of how Kansas City should calculate its “general revenue” for the purpose of funding the police.

Based on that ruling and the constitutional amendment passed in 2022, KCPD is now entitled to a quarter of most of the income that flows to Kansas City. This includes most property and sales taxes, as well as parks concessions, sale of city real estate, unappropriated surplus, vehicle licenses, parking meter revenue and pet licenses.

Certain exceptions complicate the math. For example, parks are entitled to the first two mills of a special parks tax before it’s considered general revenue, and property taxes paid on real estate bordering a boulevard are not considered general revenue.

Kansas City is also restricted from earmarking revenue in many cases, unless it has been given the authority to do so by statute or the constitution. This means that, in some cases, the city cannot create a sales tax for a specific purpose without allocating a quarter of that revenue to the police. 

This is not the case for the upcoming marijuana sales tax on the April 4 ballot because the earmarked sales tax is permitted through Amendment 3, which legalized recreational marijuana.

Former Kansas City Manager Robert Collins said that, during his time, calculating the general revenue was fairly simple. It excluded certain revenues, such as certain sales taxes and revenue from development tools like tax-increment financing (TIF).

“There was pretty much mutual agreement from the police department and police board about how we were calculating the funds,” said Collins, who was city manager for five years ending in 2002.

At the time, the police department was always funded above the required minimum level of 20%, Collins said. 

Ongoing Litigation

Now, the police board has picked a legal fight with Lucas and the city’s finance director, Tammy Queen, over the city’s calculations. Queen, who is named in the lawsuit along with the mayor, has worked in Kansas City’s finance department for two decades, including a few years under Collins.

In November 2022, the police board filed a lawsuit alleging that the city is “undercounting” its general revenue.

The lawsuit points specifically to developer tools, including TIF revenue and transportation development districts, such as the district surrounding the streetcar extension. They argue that 25% of this revenue, which totals $52 million for the upcoming fiscal year, should be redirected to the police department.

The lawsuit also demands that the city “show its work” to prove that it’s following the law.

In response, the city attorney moved to dismiss the board’s lawsuit. The law, the counterclaim says, does not contain instructions for how the general fund must be calculated, and it does not require the city to show its math.

The motion also argues that the police are not entitled to revenue from the listed development tools because they are programs authorized by the state. For example, the Main Street Rail Transportation Development District is overseen by the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Financial Implications

Development tools like TIF have been around for decades in Kansas City — past projects include the Midtown Costco and Home Depot project in 2001, Hotel Phillips in 2001 and the Blue Ridge Walmart Supercenter in 2005.

So after all these years, why is this becoming an issue now?

The police board argues that Kansas City is funding the police department closer to the minimum funding level, requiring a closer look at how the law is enforced. However, this year’s police budget of $280.7 million is a 4.3% increase from last year’s budget. 

City officials don’t buy the police board’s argument — the city’s counterclaim argues they have never declined to “adequately fund the board.”

In the city’s proposed budget for next year, economic incentives make up $52 million of Kansas City’s revenue. If a judge rules in favor of the police board, the court decision could force the city to find $13 million to redirect to the police department. And because certain economic incentives are earmarked by law and cannot be used for other purposes, this revenue would need to come from elsewhere in the budget.

‘That’s a mess’

Lora McDonald, the executive director of the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2), has grave concerns that, if it is successful, the lawsuit could bankrupt the city.

“Every time we got $1, we’d have to come up with 25 new cents. That’s a mess,” McDonald said. “The police have all the power in this equation, sadly, because of our state control circumstances. We are wholly at the mercy of state law.”

Spencer Webster, a local business and civil rights attorney who represents MORE2, worries that this lawsuit could have even more dramatic ramifications if it’s applied to other sources of revenue, such as federal and state grants. 

“My understanding is that this will go after essentially everything,” Webster said. “The reason I find that interesting is because specifically in regard to grants, we don’t get to decide how to spend that grant money. We have to specifically spend it for whatever purpose it was.”

These grants can be massive — Memphis, Tennessee, received $76 million in federal grants last year for bus improvements and Seattle’s Sound Transit received a $790 million light-rail grant in 2020.

Kansas City itself received $174 million dollars as a federal grant for the streetcar in 2021. If the city had been required to allocate a quarter of that grant to the police department, city officials would have needed to find $43.5 million in other areas of the budget and redirect it from those programs to the police.

“We’d have to turn down (grant) offers. The city, to me, would basically be at a standstill,” Webster said. “Realistically, I don’t see how it could grow.”

This article first appeared on The Beacon, a member of the KC Media Collective, and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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