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8-22-14

No election this year
to realign half cent park tax

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

There will be no November election to realign the Platte County’s half cent sales tax for parks.

That is the result of several discussions in recent days among commissioners in meetings attended by interested residents on each side of the issue.

The outcome came clear on Tuesday when a “compromise” proposal of sorts from Duane Soper, second district commissioner, failed to receive support from either Jason Brown, presiding commissioner, or Beverlee Roper, second district commissioner.

As an alternative to the jail committee’s proposal to ask voters to realign the park tax from half cent to 3/8th for parks and 1/8th for law enforcement to run through 2020, Soper proposed that the commission propose to voters a 3/8th cent tax for parks and 1/8th for law enforcement that would continue through 2024.

Roper said she thinks any ballot issue for this November would be rushed and indicated on Monday morning that she would not support any proposal being on the ballot this year.

Brown opposed Soper’s plan because it would in effect be a tax increase, with $18 million additional in revenue going to parks in Soper’s plan than what the current half cent tax would generate before it is scheduled to sunset in 2020.

“The community will see that as a tax increase,” Brown said. He also pointed out that the two associate commissioners have already publicly indicated they want to raise the property tax levy from one cent to six cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

“You’re double dipping,” Brown said.

Soper suggested that if his proposal was passed by voters that the property tax levy could then be reduced next year. After raising it to six cents for this year, if his proposal passed Soper said he would favor the levy being dropped to four cents next year.

Soper and Roper propose the five cent property tax rate increase, they say, as a way to raise the money for the annual emergency radio lease payment. Each cent of the tax levy is estimated to generate $250,000.

The jail committee’s proposal would simply have redirected $12 million of the current park tax revenue stream to law enforcement before it sunsets in 2020.

If Soper’s plan been proposed and passed by voters, Brian Nowotny, parks director, had proposed $8 million of additional capital improvement projects that are not currently scheduled.

“In addition, funds would be available to continue ongoing park maintenance, the parks and recreation outreach grant program and the stormwater program,” Nowotny said.

After Tuesday’s meeting at which no agreement could be reached to follow the proposal put forth by the jail committee, Brown told The Landmark that “by not allowing the citizens of Platte County to vote at this November’s election on the funding mechanism and budget priorities, this commission is making the same mistake that has been made twice before. Letting a true majority with all the information being available decide should not be a cause for fear.”

Brown added: “The monies we are managing belong to all the taxpayers,” Brown added.

All this discussion comes at a time when county commissioners struggle to finalize a means to allocate funds to pay the annual $1.2 million lease for emergency radios and fund potential future expansion at the county jail without raising taxes.

Some disagreement among mayors, county officials, and Platte County residents has arisen.

The commission held a meeting Thursday to discuss the option of asking voters whether they would be in support of realigning the voter approved half cent parks and stormwater dedicated sales tax to pay for law enforcement needs identified by the jail advisory committee.

Based upon the committee's observation for the need to expand the prosecutor’s office and eventually expand the county jail without incurring new debt, the commission held meetings to explore the option of realigning the parks tax as suggested by the jail committee.

The half cent park sales tax was originally passed in 2000 with a sunset after 10 years. Over that 10 year period the tax earned $60 million. Before the tax expired, voters once again approved the half cent parks and stormwater sales tax in August 2009. The county began collecting the renewed tax in January 2011.

At the direction of the Platte County Commission, Brian Nowotny, director of parks and recreation, presented a report that detailed an $11,253,950 reduction to the parks and stormwater budget over a five year period if the tax is realigned under the proposal that would put 1/8th cent to law enforcement.

Should the parks sales tax be reduced to 3/8th cents, Nowotny said a number of projects on the updated Park Master Plan would go unfunded.

Park and trail capital improvement projects previously adopted in the Park System Master Plan would be hit hardest by a reduction in revenue. One million dollars allocated to the trails of Weston Bluffs would be lost, $1.5 million would be cut from the Youth Sports Park, $1.2 million would be slashed from Weston/West Platte Parks, another million dollars could be cut from the Riverside Park Partnership, $750,000 cut from the three mile Parkville Brush Creek Greenway Trail, $500,000 from the Prairie Creek Greenway Trail, $900,000 cut from Missouri Riverfront Trail, and $250,000 withdrawn from the Green Hills Preserve and Day Cabin project.

Park projects unaffected by a reduction in park funds include Tiffany Hills Park, Platte Purchase Park, Camden Point Park, and the Line Creek Greenway Trail.

When evaluating what capital projects would be cutback by reducing the parks sales tax by 1/8th to 3/8th cents, Nowotny said numerous factors influenced his decision, specifically if the project is actively tied to a partnership or outside obligation, as well as following through on projects with a “definitive capital need.”

During the first 10 years of the parks sales tax the parks department has awarded $1.8 million in outreach grants, acquired 880 acres of protected park land, enclosed 90,000 square feet for indoor recreational opportunities, constructed 22,000 square feet of outdoor water facilities, funded $4.5 million in clean water projects aimed at controlling flood water, and constructed 15 miles of trails.

Ultimately, the Park System Master Plan proposes the construction of a 26-mile trail loop around the county. The multi-use trail loop is made up of four trail segments. Several sections of the proposed loop remain to be constructed including a 6-mile section along the Missouri Riverfront Trial, a 2.5-mile section along the Prairie Creek Greenway Trail, a 3-mile section along the Parkville Brush Creek Greenway Trail, and a 4.5 mile section along the Weston Bluffs Trail.

“Every mile of trail is different,” Nowotny said, but on average the cost of constructing a trail within the county is estimated at $250,000 per mile. The natural terrain greatly impacts the amount spent on each section, Nowotny said.

Soper first indicated Thursday it would be in the best interest of the county to fulfill the promise made to the voters, who just several years ago approved a dedicated revenue stream for parks. One way of doing that, he suggested, was asking voters to amend the half cent parks sales tax and provide 1/8th cent to law enforcement, but extending the length of the sales tax an additional 10 years from the time of the election. In other words, the tax would not expire for around four years later than it is currently set to expire at the end of 2020.

By doing this, Soper said, parks would not have to eliminate any capital improvements currently planned.

“If we put on the ballot to change what we are doing now and we get a 3/8th cent parks tax and 1/8th cent law enforcement tax for 10 more years, would we be able to take care of the promises we made to the people,” asked Soper.

Upset by the proposal to modify the half cent parks tax, Ann Sanders, a park board member, asked the commission Thursday to state their intent.

Brown asserted there was no intent other than finding a solution to pay for all the needs of the county with limited resources.

“We are all here because we have limited resources and practically unlimited needs and wants,” said Presiding Commissioner Jason Brown unequivocally. “We are trying to fund obligations that we have outside of parks and recreation.”

“If we are not reallocating current revenue from whatever source it is coming from to fund all these other things, then the options left are limited for your government. They truly are. We have a choice of continuously cutting the budget, which is a continual reduction of services to citizens. I don't mean here is $500 out of somebody's pencil budget, I mean here is $50,000 and employees go away or here is hundreds of thousands of dollars and equipment we need doesn't get purchased. That is one option.”

Brown pointed out that raising the property tax levy or increasing sales taxes were other options.

Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston said in her opinion at this time the right thing to do is to raise the property tax and leave the parks tax alone. In 2000, when the parks tax was originally passed the mill levy was at 14 cents. Today, the mill levy is set at one cent. That brings in approximately $250,000 a year, said Platte County Auditor Kevin Robinson.

“Why do we keep cutting the mill levy when we have all these needs?” asked Johnston.

Johnston urged commissioners to consider increasing the mill levy in September.

“Our citizens were promised something from (the parks sales) tax money and I think it is dishonest to try to go back later and say that's okay we want you to support this now.”

Riverside Mayor Kathy Rose pointed out that if the then-commission had left the mill levy at four cents in 2009, the county may have been in a more sound financial position where it could sufficiently fund the county's $10 million emergency radio debt.

Rose said parks are considered an essential service and recent surveys administered to the public reflect that statement.

“Parks and trails are the highest level of satisfaction on our survey every two years, because it speaks to quality of life. In this crazy, hectic world the people that are out on the trail or playing on a park are able to de-stress and spend time with their families. It is just a given in my city that that is where people go to find a happy place, so to speak, because they really enjoy those amenities,” said Rose.