Who will push for sales tax?

Decision on presentation’s contents a first step

By Burk Krohe

Now that the city and county have finally hammered out the details of the countywide, half-cent sales tax renewal, the question becomes whether voters will buy it.

One central factor in resolving that question is likely to be a combined presentation to various community groups designed to inform voters about why renewal of the sales tax, originally passed in 2002, is being sought.

The putting together of that presentation has been a small controversy within the larger controversy of the wording of the proposition.

The county initially had 90 slides intended to explain the rationale its portion of the question, which deals with improvements to roads and bridges.  City officials initially had 27 slides detailing the economic development initiatives it funded with proceeds form the current tax and its plan to use 65 percent of the renewal proceeds for traditional economic development and infrastructure and 35 percent for property tax relief. The Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce also had a handful of slides in the presentation.

City manager Ron Fehr said the combined presentation has now been cut down to 41 slides at a running time of about 30 minutes

City and county officials have already presented the combined effort twice, and they have scheduled 16 more presentations during September and October. City officials say they are optimistic. Mayor Loren Pepperd believes passage of the renewal will likely depend on the reaction of city residents since that’s where most voters live. In 2002, when the sales tax used to fund construction of the Law Enforcement Center was converted into the present iteration of the tax, a majority of city voters opposed it. But the votes of rural voters, who supported it by a 54-46 margin, put the question over the top by a mere 75 votes.

“The city has gotten larger and the county has gotten smaller,” Pepperd said.

Fehr characterized the initial presentation at an intergovernmental luncheon as a success. But that was obviously a favorable audience, and amounted to a test run. He said much of the future success will depend on how much time local groups are willing to give them.

“There’s a lot of rumors out there about what it is and what it isn’t,” Fehr said. “The goal … is to get it in front of enough people.”

Pepperd believes it’s important to stress that the proposal is a renewal of an existing tax, not a new tax. He termed the presentation “very concise and to the point.”

Chamber of Commerce President Lyle Butler said he’s hopeful that voters will be open minded. There’s a feeling that the sales tax could be particularly important when the National Bio-Agro Defense Facility comes online. Butler said a number of private sector companies will be looking at Manhattan because of NBAF, and the Chamber needs the economic tools to attract them.

The Chamber has clearly stated the need for sales tax proceeds to drive economic development; however, some are wary of also using the proceeds for infrastructure projects. Pepperd said every project will have to be vetted by commissioners in a meeting—and therefore in front of the public. He said it’s going to give more transparency and accountability to the Commission.

“I think we’ll rely much more on the public for input,” Pepperd said.

Another potential obstacle to renewal is the relationship between the city and county. In the months leading up to the final resolution, the two bodies were prepared to move forward with separate quarter-cent sales tax initiatives because they could not agree on either the wording of the question or the taxing area.

An opinion by the Kansas attorney general forced the city to jump on board with the countywide, half-cent sales tax. But there is a lingering sense among some that city commissioners were reluctant partners in the tax question. In their discussions, commissioners plainly were split between those who wanted more money devoted to economic development and those who wanted more money devoted to infrastructure improvements and/or debt relief.

City commissioner Jim Sherow, who opposed placing the tax question on the ballot because he did not feel it gave sufficient guarantees of support for economic development, said some feel the back and forth between the entities will affect prospects for the renewal. Butler said the actual disagreement isn’t as much of a problem as the confusion it created. He said at first it was a half-cent sales tax, then two quarter-cent sales taxes, and finally back to one half-cent sales tax. He believes the discussion lost some voters.

“Any time there’s confusion it makes it easier to vote no,” Butler said.

Butler and Sherow said the public is going to have to look at the track record of the current tax and decide whether it’s important.

At this point, officials are hard pressed to say how the presentation or the renewal will fare. But with 16 presentations already planned in September and October, and a phone that’s been ringing off the hook, the three entities will have plenty of opportunities to make their case.

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