by Valerie Verkamp and Ivan Foley
Platte County voters on Tuesday will decide the fate of the county’s 3/8th cent sales tax for roads.
(For The Landmark's editorial on the sales tax question, click here. For opinions expressed by readers in letters to the editor, click here)
The Platte County Commission on a 2-1 vote in January chose to put the renewal question on the Tuesday, April 2 ballot.
The tax is set to expire in September of this year unless renewed by voters.
Commissioners Beverlee Roper and Duane Soper, both new to the commission in January, voted to place the issue on the ballot without changing the 3/8th amount of the original sales tax. Presiding Commissioner Jason Brown voted against.
Brown favored allocating a portion of the 3/8th cent sales tax toward the county’s $10 million debt for emergency radio infrastructure.
Brown said now is the appropriate time to designate a revenue stream to cover the hefty cost of the federal radio mandate and if the county does not consider the few remaining funding mechanisms, then the county is significantly limiting itself.
Brown pointed out that the county has not established a means to fund the emergency radio infrastructure past 2015. Brown said he fears that renewing the road tax without allocating a portion of those funds to pay Motorola for the county's radio system would hinder the county's ability to make the required $1.2 to $1.5 million annual payments two years down the road.
“We need to be ready to meet that challenge in 2015,” he said.
Brown indicated the county's options were slowly dwindling and rather than renewing the existing tax he suggested the county allocate a portion of the revenue generated from the active 3/8 cents sales tax toward the cost of radio infrastructure.
But the two recently elected commissioners favored keeping the 3/8th cent road tax in its existing form.
“I think the county's transportation system is one of the most critical functions our government provides,” said Duane Soper, second district commissioner, who for more than 20 years served on the board that governs the Platte City Special Road District.
Soper in January said in recent discussions he was told by city officials and numerous road districts that they didn't feel stripping the revenue derived from the 3/8 cent tax was a “proper avenue” to fund the radio infrastructure.
“I tend to agree,” said Soper.
Roper, first district commissioner, also said she feels that taking money away from the roads would be a mistake at this time.
“I watched the roads literally change in the last 10 years in Platte County,” said Roper, of Weatherby Lake. “It has been amazing. I have always been for renewing the roads tax.”
Roper indicated that a decade from now would be a more appropriate time for the tax to expire.
As for a plan to pay for the emergency radio infrastructure, Roper and Soper at a public meeting with road district and municipal officials in early January indicated they would prefer to put an additional 1/8th cent sales tax for the radio infrastructure on the ballot in August.
That new tax would then be used to pay the $1.2 to $1.5 million annual payments for the radios.
If that August radio tax fails, Roper and Soper indicated at that meeting in early January they would then support raising the county’s property tax rate from one cent per $100 assessed valuation to at least seven cents per $100 assessed valuation.
In a new development, this week the county circulated an information sheet mentioning the possibility of spending use tax money to pay for radio debt.
“All retail sales taxes automatically generate use tax,” the sheet points out, explaining the county’s road tax generates $1.3 million annually in use tax.
“Commissioners have the option to dedicate use tax for specific expenditures,” the sheet says, and then shows a graphic indicating the commission could earmark the $1.3 million in use tax from the road tax toward radios.
What the sheet does not explain, however, is that the county has always dumped the use tax money into its general fund and spent it on basic government operations. As has become obvious in recent public budget battles at the county, the general fund is already stressed.
Kevin Robinson, county auditor, told The Landmark in an interview this week that if the county pulled $1.3 million from the general fund for radios, there would need to be $1.3 million in budget cuts or an increase in the county tax rate to account for that transfer of general fund money.
“You’re going to have to make up for it somewhere else,” he said, which would either mean a tax increase or an equivalent cut of $1.3 million in expenses.
Robinson explained the county has been putting all use tax money--not just use tax money generated by the road tax--into the general fund to pay for general operations.
“That whole philosophy is unsustainable,” he said Wednesday morning.
The revenue generated by the 3/8th cent road sales tax is divided in half with a portion going to the incorporated cities within Platte County and the other half going to the unincorporated areas of the county.
Before a vote was tendered to put the road tax on the ballot at a commission meeting in January, several citizens at the meeting voiced their concerns about the renewal of the tax.
“We do not support raising taxes in Platte County through a mill levy increase, an additional sales tax or the renewal of a sales tax,” said Jacque Cox, who chairs the Platte County Republican Central Committee and who spoke on behalf of Timothy Thompson, who serves as the vice-chair of the Platte County Republican Central Committee.
“It is disingenuous to say that renewing the 3/8 cent roads sales tax is not an increase when if nothing is done it will naturally sunset in September. Let the tax end as scheduled,” Cox said.
“Working families in Platte County are paying higher federal taxes, higher health care expenses and more for other necessities. Families have learned to live on less and the county should do the same,” Cox continued.
Cox said the commission has not provided taxpayers with any evidence “to justify a new 10-year roads sales tax.”
When voters approved the tax nearly a decade ago, 38 bridges were labeled deficient, 17 roads were designed for substantial improvements, and the maintenance of the entire transportation system was to be addressed by allocating monies to the rising cost of infrastructure, said Greg Sager, Platte County public works director.
But as soon as road projects began, it became apparent that the revenues derived from the tax were overly projected, while cost estimates for the road improvements were under-estimated.
Rather than generating $65 million in revenue, the tax brought in $51.5 million. That is 22 percent less than originally projected.
Despite the shortfall, Sager said the county was able to accomplish all of the road projects by designing the projects to be more cost conscientious, said Sager. Twenty-one bridges in Platte County were either replaced or underwent massive repair work.
Additionally, five significant road projects were completed including improvements to Barry Road, North Congress, Tiffany Springs, and Green Hills Road.
Sager says although many projects have been completed since the tax was first approved, it is his feeling the road system in Platte County still requires significant improvements.
“The current safety, capacity, operation, and maintenance needs of Platte County's transportation system are significant,” he said.
The director of public works said he has identified four major road projects and other improvements that should be accomplished over the next 10 years, including the replacement of 15 bridges.
But if the tax simply expires later this year or voters elect not to renew the tax, Sager said there will no other funding mechanism to adequately fund these projects.
“I believe this county has proven we can be fiscally responsible by efficiently using tax money to address the most pressing necessities without adding luxury,” said Sager.
Opponents to the tax question this week voiced concerns about the lack of open public forums and lack of invited input from the public in regard to the plans for the proposed renewed tax.