Archive for Thursday, September 13, 2007

County to seek new use for quarter-cent sales tax

September 13, 2007

With the need to come up with $15 million a year to operate a large jail expansion, Johnson County Commissioners would like one of their sources of revenue back.

Last Thursday, the commission voted 3-2 to put a quarter-cent sales tax for public safety needs before voters in an Aug. 5, 2008, referendum. The tax produces about $20 million a year in revenue.

The move would put an end the quarter-cent sales tax's use as a resource to county school districts and was made despite a last-minute plea for commissioners to reconsider from Olathe Superintendent Pat All.

The use of the county sales tax authority for education stemmed from the state's fiscal crisis early this decade. In 2001 as the county commission was exploring the possible use of the additional authority for infrastructure needs, officials with the county's three largest school districts asked that the county commission ask voters for the authority to use the revenue from the tax as a grant to schools. County voters overwhelming approved the tax for that purpose in August 2001 and a three-year extension in August 2005. That authority will sunset Dec. 31, 2008.

If the authority proposed last week is approved by county voters, the county would start collecting the new tax Jan. 1, 2009. As with the current quarter-cent sales tax, about a third of the revenue collected would be distributed to county cities.

Commissioner John Segale of Shawnee said the 554-bed expansion of the county jail at the New Century AirCenter near Gardner necessitated the commission's decision. The expansion's $60.2 million cost was "manageable" but added revenue had to be found for the $15 million annual operating cost, he said.

The county had few choices after a move in the 2006 session to get the Kansas Legislature to grant additional sales tax authority fell through after disagreements with county cities, Segale said.

"When we went for the jail, the intent was to go after the sales tax," he said. "We have a choice. We can renew a sales tax we have had for six years and dedicate it to something different, or we can have a property tax increase."

Another option would be to cut back on other programs, but Segale said he didn't hear much support for that.

Jails don't have the constituency of libraries and parks, Segale admitted. But he said it was of vital importance to the county.

"I don't think many people would disagree the first job of government is to protect the people and that is what this is all about," he said.

Unlike the authority authorized for school districts, the quarter-cent sales tax of public safety would not sunset. The reason was the $15 million a year operating cost would always be there.

Other county public safety needs that would be addressed with the tax revenue would be the $29.3 million crime lab for the sheriff's office, an $11 million central intake facility at the county's Olathe jail, and a $17.4 million juvenile detention and service center campus in Olathe.

De Soto USD 232's 2007-2008 budget indicated the district would receive $1.82 million from gifts and grants.

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