Progress toward formulation of a sales tax question was the City Commission’s indirect message to county officials at Tuesday night’s meeting. Commissioner Rich Jankovich said in previous city-county talks over renewal of the countywide half-cent sales tax, “We seem to take a half step back every time we take a step forward.” Commissioners want to change that.
Renewal of the tax has been a topic for the better part of a year. Disagreement rests on the interpretation of the original ballot question Riley County residents passed in 2002. County officials believe they’re obligated to put the same ballot question in front of voters, meaning a similar countywide, half-cent sales tax. City officials disagree. Commissioners made it clear Tuesday they wish to move forward with a citywide, half-cent sales tax, an approach they refer to as “option two.” If the county is not on the same page, the city will explore other options.
Ron Fehr, city manager, said the city would craft a letter from the mayor to the county based on the results of Tuesday’s discussion. He said it would identify a citywide, half-cent sales tax with a new interlocal agreement as the city’s preferred course of action. It would also state that the county’s share would be one-third of the revenues, and the city would have no control over the county’s flow of funds.
“I just think it’s important now that our message stays on track, and we’re going to have to go with what we feel is our best option,” Jankovich said.
Commissioners feel the citywide sales tax offers several benefits over the countywide sales tax. According to city officials, it would generate about $800,000 more in annual revenue than the current countywide tax. The increase would come chiefly from captured sales-tax revenue in the Pottawatomie County portion of the city.
A citywide sales tax would also allow the city to negotiate a new interlocal agreement with Riley County to maintain or increase the current level of funding to the county. Commissioner John Matta said the increased funding would better facilitate the city and county’s goals. The county still intends to use its portion of the revenues for road and bridge improvements, while the city intends to use a portion of the funds for economic development and a portion of the funds for debt reduction.
“I think this is one way we can meet with the county, work out an agreement with them, keep both the county and the smaller cities whole,” Mayor Jim Sherow said. “I think there’s a lot of benefits that can be achieved.”
Additionally, the city could complete economic development projects in the Pottawatomie County portion of the city without requiring approval from the Riley County Commission.
Commissioners feel county officials have held up progress.
“I fear with all the discussion we have with the county, it’s just taking too long to come to a conclusion,” Commissioner Wynn Butler said.
County officials have previously said they would ask the Attorney General whether they are required to put forward the same ballot question as in 2002. Fehr indicated the county had not yet submitted the question to the Attorney General. Commissioners said they were disappointed to hear that.
“I think if we say option two is our preferred method, I think it lights a fire…for them to get moving,” Sherow said.
Butler advocated forcing the issue.
“Option two is our preferred way to go with this, everybody does better, but if we don’t here from them soon then we’re going to have to figure out an alternative,” Butler said.
If county officials don’t go along, the other option discussed Tuesday involves putting forward a citywide, quarter-cent sales tax that would be independent of whatever the county might do. Butler said the “ball is the county’s court.”