Archive for Thursday, June 23, 2005

Legislature could determine county sales tax’s fate

June 23, 2005

Any decision the Kansas Legislature makes in Topeka regarding a count-ordered increase in school funding could also decide the future of a Johnson County quarter-cent sales tax.

In an August 2002 referendum, more than 61 percent of county voters marked ballots in favor of the quarter-cent sales tax, which provides grant money to the county's seven school districts. The tax will sunset at the end of the year unless county voters approve an extension for education grants or other purposes.

Johnson County Commission Chairwoman Annabeth Surbaugh said in her March state of the county address that a six-year extension of the tax could provide support for the schools, county and its cities. Last week, Surbaugh said that suggestion -- which she said was in no way a proposal -- was moot until the current school finance question is resolved.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled June 3 that the state must provide school districts with $143 million more for the 2005-2006 school year. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius called a special session of the Legislature, which is to start Thursday, to deal with the ruling.

Whether the special sessions results in increased school spending is still in doubt. Conservative lawmakers, angry with what they see as a usurpation the Legislature's constitutional right to appropriate funds, are mulling different strategies and may defy the ruling.

In that atmosphere, officials from the county's school district don't want to talk about the sales tax, Surbaugh said. About all the Commission can do is discuss the timing of a referendum, she said. To that end, the Commission has had some talks with the Johnson County Election Office, she said.

The adoption of the sales tax authority as an economic development grant to schools came after Commissioner Doug Wood and then-Commissioner George Gross spent nearly two years exploring how the county might use the tax for its infrastructure needs in a process that invited wide public participation.

As he considered a list of county facility needs, Wood said some thought and preparation should be given to using the quarter-cent sales tax for county needs if some of the sales tax authority was available. That list -- which includes a jail expansion, an additional wing to community corrections, new court house, and upgraded juvenile detention facilities, a crime lab for the sheriff's office, and a west Shawnee library -- has a price tag expected to exceed $500 million.

In Wood's view, it is a discussion that should have already been started.

"The alternative is a massive increase in property taxes," he said. "I'm simply saying the Board of County Commissioners needs to discuss this and decide what way or ways to finance the massive infrastructure needs facing the county."

First-term Commissioner Don Segale of Shawnee said he was optimistic school funding would be increased through legislative action or "special master" from the Supreme Courts, but true to his campaign promise of last year he would support extending the sales tax if the state failed to adequately fund education.

Segale, too, agreed commissioners couldn't do much before districts learn how much, if any, additional state funds they are due. Should the state provide for them with adequate funding, the Commission can start looking at how its needs could be addressed with the sales tax, Segale said.

It would be critical to include the public in those discussions, Segale said, because voters would ultimately decide the level of the tax, its uses and the length it would be levied.

Wood agreed but added that commissioners needed to build awareness of the county's needs.

"This is so large and massive, I think the public needs to weigh in on it," he said. "But before they can do that, the Board of County Commissioners needs to start discussion of what is really needed and for how long."

Given the price tag of county needs, it didn't make sense to approve a sales tax for less than 10 years, Wood said.

Segale said it would make sense to have a longer term because the county will issue 20-year bonds for the facility upgrades. But, he repeated the Commission needed to find a term the public would support.

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