The Independence City Council will be urged to ask voters to renew the city’s public safety sales tax at existing levels for another 12 years.
The committee that’s been studying the issue this year arrived at a consensus on that Wednesday. Its recommendation goes to the council in October, and the issue is likely to go to voters in 2015.
The tax – one-eighth cent each for police and fire expenses outside of payroll – will have run for 12 years by the time it expires at the end of 2016. It has paid for new pumpers and fire stations, as well as squad cars and other equipment. The tax was initially higher, one-quarter cent, for fire costs, but fell back to one-eighth cent after the first four years.
“I think they’re doing a good job with the money they have,” said the committee’s chairman, Keith Querry.
The committee is suggesting ballot language similar to what voters saw in 2004, and the group is leaning against a push by a couple of its members for a tighter definition, with a $3,000 threshold, of capital costs.
Mark McDonald said too much of the money has been used on maintenance, which he said should come out of the city’s general fund, instead of on facilities and other big-ticket item.
“Capital adds value to a real piece of property,” he said.
But the committee didn’t go along with that.
“It doesn’t make any sense to build a building or buy a car if you can’t afford to operate it,” Querry said.
For example, an officer’s salary is paid out of the general fund, but his gear – from a $38 traffic vest to a $675 service revolver to a $2,795 portable radio – comes to more than $7,000, and those costs have generally been picked up through the sales tax. The police and fire chiefs have said, and many on the committee have agreed, that only using the tax for items of $3,000 and more would be problematic.
Committee member Lois McDonald said that would amount to the committee getting into management and operations decisions.
“I would not be in favor of that,” she said.
The police ballot language in 2004, when the tax was approved, mentioned “capital improvements” but committee members have stressed state law defines that as any item designed to last two years or more. (The fire tax language is more general; it’s governed by a different state law.) The city’s citizens oversight committee, which reports to the City Council and public twice a year on the sales tax, has consistently said the money is being spent as intended.
Committee members have expressed concern about getting the tax renewed given the electorate’s generally anti-tax mood, and weeks ago they rejected the idea of suggesting a higher tax, despite what they see as clear needs for the Fire and Police Departments.
Mark McDonald pressed his idea of setting out a specific plan for how the money would be spent over the 12 years of an extended tax.
“Quite honestly,” Querry said, “the plan is to maintain what we’ve got.”
Committee members also are keen to make sure voters understand the tax is being extended and is not a new tax, and they said presenting clear and direct ballot language is essential.
“The simpler the better,” Lois McDonald said.
Whether the ballot says the city would “extend” the tax or continue to “impose” it – the committee strongly favors “extend” – will be a decision for the City Council. There are some legal limitations on such ballot language.