I am a Lee’s Summit resident of nearly 16 years. I am also the wife of a Lee’s Summit firefighter and paramedic, a mom of three, and an educator. My husband serves as the IAFF union treasurer and serves on numerous committees. Over the past several years I have listened to him describe the deteriorating condition of our fire department. Firefighters, many of them experienced paramedics, are leaving to work for higher paying departments. Few qualified people are applying for open positions, making it difficult to fill them. Many Lee’s Summit residents are familiar with these issues as they have been in the local news for over a year.
In the past, I have trusted that those elected and hired to govern our city’s finances have done so with great care, doing what is best for our city and the interest of both the employees who work here and the citizen’s who pay taxes. Recently, I decided to investigate that assumption on my own by digging into financial records of our city just to see if anything stood out to me. In my opinion, data should drive all decisions, so I began a search for information. Hence the quest to look over numbers from Lee’s Summit Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) and Annual Budgets from the past several years, all available on the city’s website. From what I have learned, I mostly just have many questions. Let me show you what I have found.
One common reason given to our public safety professionals as to why raises are not possible is that there simply is not enough money. Our family must budget our money and regulate our spending, so I understand the concept that money can be tight. Sometimes there is a perception that our revenue is just barely enough to cover our city’s expenses. Listed below is a table showing the city’s property and sales tax revenue between 2009 and 2018:
Property and sales tax numbers will vary year to year with changes in the economy, which one can see as you look at the data from 2011 to 2014. Even though we see a little variance in those numbers, one can see the increase in overall revenue that follows. Our overall revenue for the past ten years is up in the two largest ways our city earns revenue.
The next question I pondered was how our property and sales tax revenues compare to other surrounding cities. Not every city had their 2018 CAFR available online, so some comparative data was used from 2017. I found it interesting that our property and sales tax revenue is higher than neighboring Independence, which has a larger population.
After examining revenue, I wondered how public safety spending has changed over time in our city. As one can see in the table below, our public safety spending has nearly remained the same in the past six years. What I did not realize until reviewing the data is that our public safety services have been generating quite a bit more revenue for the city in the past several years. With this increase in revenue coming directly from public safety, I question why this revenue is not being invested back into these services.
After seeing how public safety expenses have basically remained the same over time, I wondered how spending in other departments within the city have changed over time. This time I analyzed ten years of expense data from the CAFR by department. I was not surprised to see total expenses rise over the years, as this is normal. What did surprise me was just how different the percentage change has been by department. The percentage change between 2009 and 2018 was 20.8% for public safety, but 48.3% in general government.
My next question was how much other departments spend on public safety compared to our city. I expected to see numbers like ours, but what I found only made me wonder about our city’s management of tax payer money. I used the most recent data provided by each city to determine their total spending on public safety and then calculated the total percent spent on this category out of their total overall expenditures. After seeing how our total public safety expenses have barely grown over time, I was not surprised to see that Lee’s Summit spends less percentage-wise than many other cities in our area. It is important to remember that Blue Springs does not provide fire services for its city.
Next, I wanted to find out how our total spending on public safety has changed over time when compared to other cities. I chose to only analyze Olathe and Independence since they have a comparable population to ours. As one can see, these two cities have increased their overall public safety budget by quite a bit between 2009 and now. I certainly do not advocate for increasing spending for the sake of increasing spending, but when our public safety personnel are underpaid, which has been well documented by pay studies, why are we holding that department’s budget down when other cities are not?
One common hurdle mentioned about employee payroll is the rising costs of healthcare and benefits. I have not explored the details of those specific expenses yet, but I will say that this is a challenge experienced by all cities, not just ours. If other cities can manage and plan for this rising expense, why can’t ours?
After seeing all the above data, I decided to dig around a bit and analyze some of the actual expenses by department year to year for the past five years. I was curious if other departments within the city are increasing spending compared to our fire and police departments. I pulled up budget reports from the past several years to compile some information that provided me with more questions than anything else.
Personal services is the expenditure for each department within our city that incorporates the payroll cost. I compiled data from five departments: finance, police, fire, administration, and law. Frankly, I just chose a few that I was curious about. What interested me from the data below was the percentage change between 2013 and 2017 in the finance department. I understand that staffing increases and changes are likely the cause of this drastic change in numbers.
Next, I wanted to see how spending has changed in the expense category labeled as “Other supplies, services, and charges” in the same time period for the same departments. This data made me wonder as well. Why is it that our police and fire departments have been able to decrease overall spending in this area, but the finance department has seen a large increase?
Finally, I looked at interdepartmental charges. This category of expenses goes towards paying for ITS support and vehicle maintenance. As one can see, no major changes within police and fire, but what strikes me as odd within these numbers is the large amount being spent in this category by the finance department.
Now, look at the overall changes in department expenses over these five years. What does this table say to me? Fire and police are not priorities in our city, but other departments are.
To conclude I would like to state that my overall goal was to just see if I found anything interesting or surprising in our city’s financial documents. Many things made me scratch my head and I have many more questions than answers. I am hoping that other citizens will begin to wonder, as I do, about what is really happening with our taxpayer money. If we cannot pay our employees a salary that compares to other cities our size, why not? I encourage you to dig into the numbers available on the city’s website and begin asking questions of our city council and our city administration. Send emails. Make phone calls. Show up to city council meetings.
Thank you for allowing me to share my discoveries with you. If you find an error in my data, I apologize for that in advance. I have tried to double-check my numbers and calculations to prevent that issue.