Archive for Thursday, June 24, 2004

Bi-State II placed on county ballot

June 24, 2004

Before she closed Grandma's Trunk in downtown De Soto at the start of the year, Kathy Ross said she heard many complaints about the city's high sales tax rate. That was especially true after the summer of 2002 when the city began collecting the 3/4-cent sales tax dedication for infrastructure improvements.

"I had customers complaining about the sales tax rate all the time," she said. "I never felt bad about that. At least that money was going to stay right here in my hometown; it wasn't going to the county or the state."

When all city, county and state sales taxes were totaled, De Soto has the highest sales tax rate in the state at 8.15 cents on $1 of retail sales. The southeast Kansas town of Caney has the state's highest city sales tax at 2.75 cents but because Montgomery County has no sales tax, the cumulative rate is slightly higher in De Soto.

De Soto may soon add to that total. The Johnson County Commission approved a measure that would put a new bi-state sales tax before county voters. If passed, the measure would create a sales tax of a quarter cent per dollar.

Should it pass in Johnson County and four other counties, Bi-State II would provide $1.4 billion for renovations at Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums and enhancing the arts in the metropolitan area. The tax would sunset in 12 to 15 years.

Although she had no problem with city sales taxes, Ross was hostile to Bi-State II.

"I want nothing to do with that," she said. "That will do nothing for De Soto."

Unlike other Johnson County sales tax, the city of De Soto would not get a direct distribution of a portion of Bi-State II, said Robin Cook, budget analysts for Johnson County.

"All the revenue raised will be given to the Bi-State Authority," she said.

De Soto's representative on the County Commission, John Toplikar, said from his experience Ross' views were common in De Soto and his western Johnson County district.

"They don't want a thing to do with it in De Soto," he said. "In my district it causes outrage. In my part of the county, I don't think it's going to stand a snowball's chance."

Susie Wolf of Shawnee and Toplikar were the two no votes in the 5-2 Commission decision to put the measure before voters.

Toplikar said he voted against the measure because to the precedent of Bi-State I, which raised money to renovate Union Station and start Science City within the Kansas City, Mo., landmark. It was a proven failure, Toplikar said, because of Science City's inability to operate in the black.

Toplikar said he would urge residents to vote against the measure because there were too many unanswered questions, especially with the split jurisdictions that made accountability problematic.

"That's a lot of money," he said. "How do we make sure there is accountability? How do you track this thing? It's got too many different variables.

Rather than voting on a new bi-state proposal, Johnson County voters should be voting on whether the county should stay in the Bi-State Cultural District, Toplikar said.

"I think people have the right to vote on the right question," he said. "And the right question is was Bi-State I a failure? And if it was, should we bail out?"

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce is taking the lead in the campaign for Bi-State II. Pam Whiting, vice president of communications for the greater chamber, disputed Toplikar's claim that Bi-State I was a failure.

"All you have to do is walk through Union Station and see a beautiful building that 10 years ago was shuttered and full of pigeon excrement," she said.

As for Bi-State II, Whiting admitted it was a complicated proposal, but at its base it was designed to preserve Kansas City's status as a major league baseball and football city and offer a greater exposure to the arts in the metropolitan area.

There was a misconception, Whiting said, that the proposal would build luxury boxes at Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. The owners of the Royals and Chiefs will put up $65 million for that, she said.

Bi-State II would provide $360 million to improve concourses, concession stands and rest rooms at the two stadiums, which are among the oldest in their respective leagues, Whiting said. In return, the teams have agreed to sign leases that would keep them in Kansas City through 2030.

Bi-State II would provide $50 million for a downtown Kansas City, Mo., performing arts center, which would leverage $250 million in private monies, Whiting said. Another $50 million would be made available for capital projects for the arts on both sides of the state line.

Of the remaining revenue, 50 percent would be made available to regional art centers, such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, on a competitive grant basis. The other half would be shared with the participating counties to be available for grants to community arts groups.

"So if there was a community theater group in De Soto, they could apply for a grant for support," Whiting said.

The presence of major league teams and greater accessibility to the arts would benefit De Soto's efforts at recruiting new industry and residents, Whiting said.

De Soto Chamber of Commerce Director Sara Ritter said that in her experience, such amenities were important to attracting new businesses and residents.

But Ritter said prospective businesses or industries always mention the city's high sales tax, too.

"It always comes up," she said. "But it isn't the most important factor. Location, work force development and the city's growth potential are more important."

Not surprisingly, Ritter is taking a non-committal "let the residents vote on it" view of the Johnson County Public Policy Council, a subcommittee of the Johnson County Chambers Presidents Council.

Ritter said she sat in meetings when that body discussed its position on Bi-State II. She said she heard too many unanswered questions to take a position on the issue.

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