COLUMBIA — Members of Keep Columbia Free have emailed a letter to voters in the Downtown Community Improvement District imploring them to vote against a proposed half-cent sales tax on all downtown retail sales.
The letter, written by Eapen Thampy and Mitch Richards, can be found on the group's website.
In the letter, they list four reasons the tax should be rejected:
- A general belief that taxes should be cut and not raised.
- Some of the possible improvements listed in the ballot language are unnecessary.
- Money would be better spent on other First Ward needs, including another police officer and a fire company.
- A lack of trust in the district's board after the city installed surveillance cameras downtown.
Richards, the group's treasurer and a former First Ward City Council candidate, said that he and Thampy wrote the letter on principle.
"Now is not a time when we need to be extracting more money out of the local economy," Richards said.
Thampy, who works as a political consultant, has lived in the downtown area for the past eight years, including his time as an undergraduate student at MU. He said he believes the tax would be too great of a burden on many people who live downtown, including students and the elderly.
"It's absolutely ludicrous to me that we want to impose another sales tax downtown," he said. "An extra five or 10 dollars a month makes a difference to some people."
Thampy and Richards also said that proposed tax-financed amenities, such as district-wide Wi-Fi, would compete directly with businesses that already offer the service.
"There's a multiplicity of businesses that already provide services like Wi-Fi, event planning and promotion," Thampy said. "I don't see a compelling reason for the government to compete with those people and make their business more difficult."
"There's no reason the private businesses can't provide those services to customers," Richards said. "Instead, they go to the taxpayers. That's the most troubling part of this."
District board member Skip Walther sees the positives of offering Wi-Fi across the entire district but said he would want to make sure a majority of people want the service before establishing it.
"I'm confident that we would do a fairly significant amount of canvassing on the need (for district-wide Wi-Fi) and determine what the people want," Walther said.
Thampy also worries that the district would use some of the estimated $300,000 in sales tax revenue to install more security cameras downtown. While cameras aren't mentioned in the ballot language, a May 2009 draft of a district management plan lists "maintaining a downtown security camera system" as a probable use of the tax proceeds.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of the district, said the district board has re-evaluated priorities since the management plan was published and that none of the money would go toward cameras.
"We did look at the vote (on security cameras) and how the folks downtown voted and decided against it," Gartner said, referencing an April 2010 vote on the proposal to place cameras downtown. Only the First Ward voted against the idea.
Along with possible Wi-Fi service, the ballot lists sidewalk improvements, snow removal, smartphone applications and downtown promotion as examples of projects the sales tax could pay for. But the district wouldn't have to spend the tax money on any of those things.
Walther, however, said the district would have to stick to the general categories listed on the ballot, including:
- Downtown beautification.
- Technology and public information enhancements.
- Business marketing and development assistance.
- Event recruitment and promotion.
- Shopping, dining or entertaining enhancements.
"By listing categories of projects, we are essentially excluding categories that aren't listed," Walther said.
Another member of the district's board, Deb Sheals, said in a previous Missourian article that the board intends to spend the money on the endeavors listed on the ballot.
Thampy also cited concern that some of the tax money would be used to give Gartner a large raise. Gartner laughed when asked about that.
"The goal of this is not so I can have a six-figure salary," she said.
Because Keep Columbia Free has no money to pay for campaigning, it has taken a more grassroots approach. Besides the emails letters sent to residents, the group plans to knock on doors this weekend and express their concerns to registered voters.
On the other side of the spectrum, Progressive Political Partners has been out knocking on doors, making phone calls and sending brochures encouraging voters to approve the tax and giving reasons why it would benefit Columbia. Friends of Downtown Columbia will pay the consulting firm $4,000.
Richards said he feels that he and Thampy are just doing their part to advance their position.
"We're just concerned citizens who wrote a letter and sent it to the people downtown," he said.