Archive for Tuesday, July 22, 2008

County pushes for sales tax ‘yes’ vote

July 22, 2008

The Johnson County government says it is absolutely necessary to fund improvements to the county's public safety system and services. How it will be funded will be decided at the ballot box.

Voters across Johnson County on Aug. 5 will decide how the county will pay for two new facilities and for future operation costs of a new jail currently under construction: either with a quarter-cent sales tax that will replace the current tax dedicated to schools or by digging into reserve funds, cutting other county services and possibly raising property taxes.

County officials like County Commission chair Annabeth Surbaugh say though the tax won't fund services used by all county residents, it is necessary to improve public safety. Critics like former Shawnee City Council member Tracy Thomas, who runs an opposition blog at JoCoNO.blogspot.com, have said the county should be able to fund all of the services supported by the tax with the property taxes it currently receives.

Funding for operations

County officials call the tax a "renewal" and "redirection" of the current quarter-cent sales tax that is passed on to school districts within the county.

"So the taxes do not go up, but it will change who gets the money," Surbaugh said.

The bulk of the money raised by the tax would be spent on a new crime lab and a new juvenile services complex - not only to build them but also to operate them in the future - as well as funding future operations of the jail expansion currently under construction.

The new crime lab facility is likely to begin in 2010 at the site of the countywide communications facility under construction at 119th Street and Ridgeline Road.

The current crime lab was built in the 1970s and has been remodeled three times. The lab's operations have grown with the county's population. Because of that growth - and the lab's assisting state and federal government investigations - the space needs for scientists performing forensic investigations have also grown.

"We just simply can't justify it to remodel the existing facility," Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning said.

The tax also would fund a new Juvenile Services Complex to provide counseling, substance abuse services, corrective programs and more housing for low-risk juvenile offenders.

The county has found that the first 72 hours are the most important for prisoners in its system. So, the tax would fund creation an intake, assessment and booking center for all municipalities that bring prisoners to the county on the first floor of the downtown Olathe jail. The remodeling would begin in last part of 2009.

"I'm 100 percent sure that it will increase efficiency," Denning said.

Expansion of the jail is already under way, funded with property taxes; however, the county doesn't have the funds to hire personnel needed for the expansion and to fund its operations. County officials say more jail space was necessary because the county booked more than 18,000 inmates in the past year and the county currently spends $4 million to $6 million a year to "farm" out excess prisoners to other jails.

Sales tax vs. property tax

In the past 25 years, the county's general population has doubled, but the population of jails has tripled, Surbaugh said.

"The reason we're seeking to fund these things with a sales tax is half the people in our jails aren't Johnson County folks. But where they do the crime, they pay the time, and we get to pay for it with our dime," she said. "So when sales tax is roughly a third collected from outside of the community, that seems to be a fairer way of paying for it, rather than putting it on the property taxes of Johnson County residents."

Surbaugh acknowledged the sales tax wouldn't cover the costs forever if passed. As costs of doing business continue to rise, the county would have to use additional property taxes to fund part of what the sales tax would initially fund, as early as three or four years after the tax is passed.

Critics also have asked why the county didn't put a sunset on the tax.

"The reality is that the ongoing cost of administering these facilities is people," Surbaugh said. "It isn't going to lessen; it isn't going to go away."

Sunsets are used on sales taxes for capital projects like a pool or parks, said Mike Press, county manager.

"It makes perfect sense for one-time expenditures like, but for operational costs that don't sunset, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to do that," he said.

The county does have a public safety sales tax that was passed in 1995, but Press said as the county anticipated, it only pays for about two-thirds of the cost of the projects for which it was originally passed.

"We understood that within a few years it wasn't going to be enough for the projects it was intended for and we were going to have to supplement it with property tax, and that was exactly what happened," he said.

The tax was put on Aug. 5 ballot so it would be approved in time to begin Jan. 1, 2009, as the school sales tax ends Dec. 31, 2008. This means retailers won't have to reconfigure their cash registers to take out the tax and then put it back in.

"We would probably prefer to have (the vote) in November, if we really had our druthers, but that's the way it is," Surbaugh said.

Cities to share in funds

The county's portion of current quarter-cent sales tax has been approved two times for three years each as an economic development grant, since good school systems are seen as necessary to attract economic development.

Because of this situation, cities were asked to identify an area within their budget where their portion of the sales tax would be used to benefit children or schools. Shawnee used its portion of the tax to fund the Splash Cove pool.

Critics of the public safety sales tax say the case should be the same this time and cities should have had to specify where they would use their portion of the tax. But county officials say they have no legal authority to impose upon the cities to specify where the cities would use the funds.

"However, I would say to the citizens in each of the cities that they can hold their cities accountable," Surbaugh said.

Shawnee will put the money in its general fund, Carol Gonzales, city manager, said.

"I had hoped to be able to recommend to the (Shawnee City) Council that the revenue we received from the tax could be put toward our ongoing street maintenance program," Gonzales said. "However, since our financial situation has considerably worsened over the past six months creating significant revenue shortfalls, I believe that the city is in a position where the sales tax revenue must be used to cover costs of operations as we attempt to maintain basic services."

If it doesn't pass

Should the sales tax fail, county officials say they will meet in September to determine what county budget items will be cut to pay for items the tax would have funded.

"We've got some dollars set aside in reserves, and in the event that it doesn't pass, we're going to have to continue building the jail and hiring the deputies and doing all the things necessary to provide that jail space," Press said. "But the other projects, we're going to have to rethink very, very hard and decide how are we going to afford it without that sales tax."

If it doesn't pass, it's likely property taxes will have to go up in the future, Press said.

"We think this is a much, much better and more fair way of providing these absolutely necessary services for our community, and we think it's a far better option at this point than property tax," Press said.

Surbaugh said the county couldn't make enough cuts to fund operation of the jail, though she said she is sure the County Commission would cut everything it could.

"We'll just have to cut some services we've come to accept," she said, listing halting parkland development, limiting library hours and limiting social services as possibilities. "The trouble is by saying all that : it appears to be a threat. The whole problem is we're giving people a choice: Do you want to pay for this with a sales tax, versus other ways."

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