Supporters tout benefits of sales tax, opponents see tax giveaway
Three months after approving the extension of a quarter-cent public safety sales tax, Johnson County voters will consider another sales tax for education.
In November, voters will decide whether to authorize a one-eighth cent sales tax, also with no sunset, to fund projects and programs for the Johnson County Education Research Triangle Authority, a proposed development to create three new facilities within the county, two for Kansas University and another for Kansas State University.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for this county to continue to be the economic engine for the county and the state," said Sue Gamble of Shawnee, a retiring member of the Kansas Board of Education.
But the idea also has its critics, most notably Tracy Thomas, former Shawnee City Council member who also campaigned against the public safety sales tax that won easy approval in the Aug. 5 primary.
"As County Commissioner John Toplikar calls it, and I sure wish I had thought of this, 'It's the Bermuda Triangle. Tax money goes in, but never comes out,'" Thomas writes on her blog against the tax.
Creating the triangle
In June, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution placing the sales tax question on the November ballot and certified the language of the ballot question.
The resolution was approved by a 6-1 vote with Toplikar, who represents western portions of the county, including De Soto, dissenting.
"The name of this reminds me of the Bermuda Triangle, where maybe the public's money going in will never be seen again, although we can expect those who begin their projects with the public's money will surely be back for more," Toplikar wrote to the De Soto Explorer after the commission's vote to put the tax on the ballot. "True economic development doesn't need a tax to support it."
A public vote on creation of the Education Research Triangle Authority was authorized last year by the Kansas Legislature. The legislation authorized a sales tax rate of up to 0.2 percent. The November ballot question seeks local authorization for a 0.125 percent sales tax, effective in early 2009, to raise an estimated $15 million annually.
The tax is proposed to fund three new facilities in Johnson County:
¢ The KU Edwards Campus Business, Engineering, Science and Technology Center in Overland Park, including 75,000 square feet of class and office space to provide 10 new degrees, including masters in molecular bioscience and engineering. The campus would partner with Johnson County Community College to provide four-year degrees;
¢ The KSU Innovation Campus National Food and Animal Health Institute in Olathe, on College Boulevard just east of Kansas Highway 7. The institute would include 103,000 square feet, 30,000 of research space and 73,000 of classrooms, to serve 1,000 students annually, providing 10-15 new masters degrees.
¢ The KU Cancer Clinical Research Center in Fairway, which will include 70,000 square feet, 96 percent of it dedicated to research and the rest office space.
The sales tax revenues would be equally divided among the three institutions and would also fund scholarships and operations costs. The sales tax, as proposed by the state legislation, has no sunset date to ensure that ongoing operations, maintenance, and research will be provided into the future.
The Johnson County Education Research Triangle Authority would oversee the construction and operations of the facility. The local board would be composed of seven members who must be elected officials of Johnson County.
Board members will be appointed by the governor, the Kansas Board of Regents, the Board of County Commissioners, KU, KSU and JCCC. The Board of Regents will maintain its constitutional authority over the universities.
The state of Kansas and Johnson County both have the authority to audit the Triangle Authority at any time. The authority also will have a regular independent audit to ensure credibility, efficiency and public confidence.
Supporters say the triangle would enhance the quality of life of Johnson County residents, create new jobs and companies, sustain existing engineering, technology and animal health companies and expand the knowledge-based economy.
They say the KU cancer center will provide opportunities for cancer cures and treatments, while the K-State research center protects the local food supply.
Jack Deyoe, operations director for De Soto USD 232, is a member of the Triangle Advocacy Council, along with Gamble and several other prominent Johnson Countians.
Deyoe said his place on the council reflected his own beliefs and not those of the school distric. The triangle will benefit all of Johnson County with both increased education opportunities, underscoring the importance of science and math and economic opportunities, he said.
Deyoe said the triangle could draw research and development companies to locate along K-7 and Kansas Highway 10.
"Anything that's good for this entire area as far as economic development is good for the school district," he said. "Adding more businesses on K-7 and K-10 is going to help taxpayers of De Soto (school district) as we're building schools. And as far as the education piece, having more educational opportunities, that's what you wish for as a parent is to have great opportunities education-wise for your kids."
Gamble agrees. She said with only 30 percent of their funding coming from the state, the universities can't build these facilities on their own.
"The universities have no ability to do this at all, so increasingly, what they are going to need to do is build public/private partnerships," Gamble said.
With the current state of funding for higher education, creating such partnerships will be difficult to sell to a private entity that wants to come in and help fund research. And Gamble said life sciences will be to the start of the 21st century what the auto industry was at the beginning of the 20th century.
"This is going to fuel the economic development growth that we must have if we're going to be competitive in the life sciences," she said.
Joerg Ohle, president and general manager of Bayer HealthCare's Animal Health Division in Shawnee, also supports the triangle, writing in a letter of support that the educational facilities will "add new degree holders that will enhance the regional talent pool, thereby further contributing to our ability to attract new companies to the region."
An economic boost?
Thomas, however, calls the triangle a "forever subsidy, a slush fund, for secret projects controled by a secret administrative group instead of the KU Regents."
She says the KU cancer center won't be a true research facility, just a treatment facility, so residents shouldn't expect a cure for cancer. The only way to generate a profit would be with intellectual property, Thomas writes, and that would be selling a solution that the taxpayers paid to generate but the money would never return to the taxpayers.
Gamble disagreed. She said private industries would be able to come in and capitalize on the research done at the new facilities.
"We will be able to draw in some very, very powerful private funding entities," she said. "There are major capital investors out there that are watching what's happening in Kansas and wanting to help."
Deyoe stressed that the sales tax was the best way to fund the triangle because it won't be just Johnson County residents paying for the facilities.
"Sales tax by far is the most beneficial for those who are low-income or seniors," he said. "These educational amenities are definitely worth it."
The pros and cons
¢ Information about the tax and research triangle can be found at jocotriangle.com
¢ Tracy Thomas's opposing views of the triangle can be found at bermudatriangleno.blogspot.com