A city of Independence committee appears likely to recommend renewing the city’s public safety sales tax, though the ballot language could be altered some from what voters saw 10 years ago.
Members of the Public Safety Services Review Committee on Wednesday generally said the city’s Police and Fire departments have delivered on the improvements promised when voters approved the tax, one-eighth cent each for police and fire.
“I think they’re done a good job,” said Jackie Todd, a member of the committee.
But some expressed disappointment that in a flat economy the tax has brought in less than projected and that the city is spending less out of its general fund for police and fire services.
“We subsidize the general fund with the safety fund,” said committee member Mark McDonald.
Others pointed out that other city departments have had cuts, too.
One committee member, Dwight Barnhard, pushed for an overall financial plan – safety tax money, general fund money, with specific goals but flexible over time – to be put in front of voters.
“This is more triage than it is a long-term, comprehensive plan,” he said of the city’s current approach.
The tax is set to expire at the end of 2016. In October, the committee is to make a recommendation to the City Council about whether to let the tax expire, keep it as it is, or expand it. The consensus Wednesday was to keep it. Some members said more money is needed but that that’s a hard sell with voters.
“Any tax right now is iffy. A new tax, you’re looking at an uphill battle,” committee member Tim Watkins said.
The tax has paid for new fire stations, new squad cars and higher police salaries.
Police Chief Tom Dailey said that improvement in salaries has made the Police Department a desirable place for officers to be and said the city would not want to back off those gains.
But committee members said there are other needs. The fire training budget has been cut. Haz-mat service over the years has been largely paid for by the federal government, but that money is going away. Officials say the police building needs to be replaced or extensively and expensively renovated.
“We’ve got a police building that’s shameful – just shameful,” Todd said.
The tax supports many ongoing needs. Daily said if that money were lost tomorrow the department would have to let 22 officers go.
“It (the tax) wasn’t a one-step, fix-all thing that at the end of 12 years, everything would be great,” said the committee’s chair, Keith Querry.
Some committee members stressed that City Council members should have an important role in the discussion and suggested that the city put more general fund money on the table, given the critical importance of fire and police services.
“They (the taxpayers) paid the full load in the first place, and then they paid this in addition,” Watkins said.
Dailey said the tax was projected to bring in about $2.1 million a year but instead has raised $1.8 million to $1.9 million, leaving little for new initiatives.
Committee members also generally agreed that a renewed tax should have a sunset, meaning voter approval again down the line. Dailey said a comprehensive plan is a good idea but cautioned that a sunset would greatly limit that, arguing that the city couldn’t hire officers knowing that the funding source for their salaries could go away.
“Everything’s put on hold when you have a sunset,” he said.