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New hitch to sales tax question

By Burk Krohe

City commissioners can’t seem to escape the sales-tax issue. A week after commissioners made it clear to county officials they want to move forward, preferably with a half-cent citywide sales tax, another obstacle presented itself Tuesday.

The main disagreement between the two entities over the renewal of the tax rests on the interpretation of the 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.

County officials have solicited an opinion from the state attorney general.

“It does go quite a bit further than what we talked about,” Ron Fehr, city manager, said. 

Fehr said the county’s inquiry included a determination whether the city’s funds must be restricted to economic development purposes as they are in the 2002 tax.

“We never had any discussions about asking the attorney general that,” Commissioner John Matta said.

The situation has potential to cause problems for the commissioners, who have expressed intent to use part of the revenues for debt relief in addition to economic development. 

Much of the commissioners’ discussion revolved around whether the city should also contact the attorney general’s office or disregard the county’s actions and proceed on its own. Initially, Commissioner Wynn Butler and Matta leaned toward the latter.

Matta noted that Butler had previously advocated a joint ballot question with a quarter-cent, citywide sales tax and a quarter-cent, countywide sales tax. On Tuesday, however, he said “it may be the best thing to go on our own and stay away from any of these issues.”

Butler agreed.

“Why don’t we separate them and make it crystal clear?” Butler said. “The voters can sign up for that or not.”

The concern is that such a course of action might be detrimental to any kind of sales tax passing.

Bill Frost, city attorney, said the county’s question to the attorney general seemed unclear. Frost said if the attorney general doesn’t understand what the city’s position is, it could be adverse to the Commission’s wishes. Commissioner Loren Pepperd suggested the city write a letter to the attorney general clarifying the Commission’s position.

“I don’t think we really have a choice,” Matta said. “We have to give our position.”

However, Frost told commissioners they are essentially in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

“In my view, the most likely response we’re going to get from the attorney general’s office is, ‘you guys are in dispute, I’m not going to get in the middle of it, I’m not going to answer it,’” Frost said.

He said if that’s the result, or if the attorney general feels the language tying funds to economic development must go on the ballot, it’s going to be difficult for the Commission to take its desired course of action.

But he added that if the city doesn’t weigh in, it runs the risk of the attorney general upholding the county’s position.

Commissioners decided it would be worth it to clarify the city’s position. They told Frost to write a letter to the attorney general and “hone in on like a laser” to the second question, especially the obligation of funds.

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