Something Stinks on Grand Boulevard

By Joe Sweeney

Dad, this one’s for you.

If you’ve been keeping up on the recent online fury over city and county tax favors bestowed on The Kansas City Star, you’re probably as mad as I am, speaking as a taxpayer. But this issue resonates with me personally.

My Dad was the last elected Jackson County assessor, and among his many accomplishments after taking office in 1968 were the introduction of aerial photography for assessment verifications, and a push to make assessment values equitable across the county. Both moves made a lot of folks mad, including some area mob families, as well as The Star, which at the time enjoyed what by then were 30-year-old Pendergast-era tax levels on their significant land holdings in the Crossroads District.

The Star was a much stronger machine back then, and took every pot-shot it could at my Dad. Eventually—and reluctantly—it came to accept a fair and reasonable 3x assessment increase on its holdings. That’s not the attitude any longer at 1729 Grand.

In 2006, The Star opened a new printing plant Downtown. The gleaming, $200 million project testified to the vision of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, and the company’s faith in the capacity of print media to endure in the Internet age. That project was made possible by a 10-year, 100 percent property tax abatement on the facility, which the city granted in 2002.

While those were perhaps sunnier days for the newspaper industry, Knight-Ridder lived to regret dropping $200 million on the plant—but not for long. The same year that plant opened, Knight-Ridder effectively ceased to exist. It was acquired by the far smaller Sacramento-based McClatchy Newspapers group, a case of Jonah swallowing the whale.

That acquisition was made possible by the stunning fall in Knight-Ridder’s fortunes: Just a year earlier, Knight-Ridder stock had peaked at nearly $75 a share. By the time the plant opened, it was well on its way to $40 a share—and eventually to .44 cents a share, just three years after the plant opened.

Nobody needs to lecture me on the challenges of selling print advertising, but I am here to tell you: It can be done, if the content is something people want and can use, and if advertisers see the value proposition in connecting with their target markets. As ad support has waned, readers have seen a steady erosion in both the volume and quality of The Kansas City Star newspaper content. For consumers of business news, recent word that The Star was dissolving its formal business desk marked yet another sad chapter in that decline.

I’m not here to celebrate the difficulties at The Star —“There but for the Grace of God,” and all that—but a significant public policy issue has raised its head with the paper, and it directly affects not just me personally, or Ingram’s, but all of us who pay property taxes in Kansas City and Jackson County.

This month, the City Council granted The Star a 15-year extension of a property-tax abatement that the newspaper itself didn’t see fit to request in 2002.

The council’s decision, frankly, is exactly what Michael Duffy of the Chapter 353 advisory board called it—“a bailout for a troubled business”—when the panel recommended against city approval last month.

The City Council’s vote took place even as the county’s valuation on the facility had mysteriously fallen by nearly 50 percent, from $42 million to $22 million, in the past year.

Keep in mind: The newspaper pays into the transportation development district that funds the new streetcar system, a project that civic boosters say has dramatically increased property values near the tracks. Yet our taxing authorities have somehow discovered a zone of radically declining values, that ironically, has the exact same footprint as the newspaper’s property. Go figure.

During the discussion about whether to award the latest abatement, City Councilman John Sharp declared: “We have a right and a responsibility to come to a different conclusion” than that recommended by the Chapter 353 board. After all, Sharp noted, he had been a subscriber to The Star for 45 years.

With all due respect, there’s no place for rank sentimentality or one’s personal reading habits in any discussion about tax fairness. I miss the glory days of the locally-owned Star as much as anyone who used to absorb its local content. But cutting our own revenue throats to bail out a California ownership that has no intention of restoring the paper to those glory days isn’t just bad policy—it’s an insult to every one of us who has to write that annual check for property taxes.

If The Star’s property is worth a nearly 50 percent assessment reduction, Jackson County owes every other taxpayer in the county an identical break.

Once upon a time, we had a newspaper in this city that would look into favoritism like this and not only inform the citizenry, but fight for our justice. Boy, those days are long gone. . . .

About the author


Joe Sweeney

Editor-In-Chief & Publisher