Archive for Thursday, May 1, 2008

Surbaugh making case for sales tax extension

May 1, 2008

As if anticipating the first local debate on the extension of a Johnson County quarter-cent sales tax, Johnson County Commission Chairman Annabeth Surbaugh said crime does not sunset.

County residents are to vote on an extension of the sales tax Aug. 5. The sales tax, which was approved by county voters in 2002 and 2006 as a means to provide grants to county school districts, is set to sunset at the end of the year. The ballot question would extend the tax indefinitely for the county public safety needs.

Revenue from the tax would help pay for the $17.8 million juvenile corrections complex and Johnson County crime lab. It also would help fund the operation of county jails.

As has been the case since the quarter-cent tax was first approved, a third of the money collected would be distributed to county cities.

In an attempt to build support for the tax, county commissioners have asked cities to support the measure and pledge their share of the revenue from it to infrastructure and public safety.

The De Soto City Council responded with a qualified endorsement. In a 3-2 vote, the council supported the tax with the stipulation it has a 20-year sunset.

Council members Tim Maniez and Ted Morse said they preferred the sales tax to the property tax increase the county would have to resort to if the referendum failed.

Voicing opposition, council members Mitra Templin and Mike Drennon said they were concerned about De Soto's high sales tax rate. They were particularly concerned about the lack of sunset clause.

When Councilwoman Betty Cannon also supported the tax, Templin and Drennon successfully added the stipulation the council's support hinged on a 20-year sunset clause.

As for the request the city's share of revenue from the tax be used for public safety or infrastructure, City Administrator Pat Guilfoyle said it would be a difficult pledge to make because he didn't know how much the city received from the source. Revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax wasn't separated from other sales tax receipts the city received from the county. All that revenue is currently designated for the general fund, he said.

County commissioners decided not to include a sunset clause because they felt that would force future county commissioners to go back to voters for an ongoing need of operating correctional facilities, which account for a third of the county's current budget.

"Crime, unfortunately, doesn't sunset," she said. "A sunset would be the popular thing to do, but that would only be handing it off to future commissioners. There's no way we're not going to need it."

Should the sales tax fail, the county would have to raise property tax, Surbaugh said. Although current reserves would provide some cushion, a projected 2-mill hike would be needed immediately, and further increases would be needed in four years, she said.

Its failure would also force commissioners to cut county services, Surbaugh said.

"They would be the kind of service cuts the public would notice - cuts in library hours, an increase in waiting lines for mental health support," she said.

Residents from outside the county would help pay for county jails when shopping in Johnson County. That was appropriate because neighboring counties were exporting crime to Johnson County, she said.

"More than 50 percent of the residents of our jails moved to Johnson County in the last 10 years," she said. "Why should Johnson County taxpayers be forced to pay for their time in jail when more than half are from somewhere else?"

Surbaugh said her unofficial slogan of "When they do the crime, they do the time on your taxpayer's dime" was a message to neighboring counties.

As the campaign for the sales tax begins, Surbaugh concedes the county can't continue to ask voters every 20 years for additional revenue to operate jails. Part of the remedy has come from Topeka, which continues to pass legislation requiring time in county jails for offenses that should either require sentences in state institutions or alternatives such as public service, she said.

At her request, county commissioners last month approved the creation of a council to study options to jail time, such as public service and personal tracking devices. The council also is charged with exploring and recommending programs to provide early intervention with juveniles and inmates.

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