Keep Columbia Free campaigns for rejection of downtown tax ballot

The group says that a tax would be a burden and that projects are unnecessary
Wednesday, November 2, 2011 | 7:51 p.m. CDT

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.

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Eapen Thampy November 2, 2011 | 8:08 p.m.

The April 13th Columbia Tribune reported:

"A Columbia police lieutenant told the Downtown Community Improvement District yesterday that the city is ready for the $25,000 the group had promised to help finance the installation of downtown security cameras, signaling that the plans approved by voters in the April 2010 election are finally nearing implementation.
Lt. Chris Kelley told the CID board the cameras could be installed within a couple of months. "I'm hoping by June 1," he said. "That's me being very optimistic."
Columbia-based Integrated Solutions Group and Spider Technologies of Jefferson City were the two respondents to the city's request for proposals to provide the service. The city is "leaning toward" one of the businesses at this point, Kelley said.
Melinda Pope with the city's Finance Department said the city cannot award a contract until the Columbia City Council appropriates the CID funds. The CID board agreed yesterday to allocate the $25,000."

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt November 2, 2011 | 10:39 p.m.

I will vote with my dollars. I will not spend any money in the area so raise your tax as high as you want. Makes no difference to me.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin November 3, 2011 | 8:23 a.m.

I continue to wonder how many hits downtown merchants can take before the golden goose -- downtown commerce -- is cooked.

Unlike many downtown areas, we not only have no free parking, but parking fees have skyrocketed in relative terms recently. Parking tickets just did the same.

Downtown property owners already pay higher property taxes, and we already pay high sales taxes all over town.

Downtown merchants pay high rents and are beholden to several different governance groups. People like John Ott who renovate buildings downtown spend a fortune on permit and other fees.

City and county government already collect plenty of taxes and fees. They need to start spending what they collect downtown -- on the alleys, infrastructure, etc. -- rather than constantly asking for more.

Local government is like that carnivorous plant from Little Shop of Horrors, only this time it's Giant Shop of Taxes.

Feed Me! Feed Me! it cries without end.

(Report Comment)
Eapen Thampy November 3, 2011 | 9:09 a.m.

CID picks students and low-income households to be losers with new tax
Posted on November 2, 2011
In an interview in the Columbia-Missourian today, I’m quoted discussing the negatives of the proposed new 1/2 cent sales tax being pushed by the Community Improvement District in downtown Columbia. I particularly want to bring to your attention this excellent quote from yours truly:

“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.”

While people on the CID board like attorney Skip Walther and executive director Carrie Gartner might take home handsome salaries, many residents in and around the downtown area do not. As a former university student, I can particularly attest to the fact that many students live on extremely limited budgets from which they must finance their educations and living expenses. Moreover, facilities like Paquin Towers are home to numerous disabled and low-income elderly people, and the area around downtown is also home to numerous low-income households (I particularly remember the Section 8 Housing in the vicinity of Lyon Street, where I lived in 2006-2007).

A 1/2 cent sales tax increase may not feel like much to an attorney billing upwards of $200/hr, like Skip, or an executive director of a government entity making $60,000 a year, like Carrie. But for students scraping up the dimes and nickels and quarters together to get a cheap sandwich at Quintons or a solitary beer at the Heidelburg, that sales tax makes a difference. For the elderly veteran on disability who spends $100 on groceries at the Mini Mart a week, an extra five or or ten dollars might make the difference between going hungry or eating on that one night a month when it matters.

At some margin, we should consider the impact of these kinds of taxes on the people who are the poorest and most politically weak. In this case, I see a large population of people who are going to be marginally worse off for benefits that are nebulous, ill-defined, and carry no real definition that we can hold anyone accountable for. We can and should do better with our public policies, and I urge the CID to consider this argument and withdraw its ballot proposition.

(Report Comment)
Jeremy Calton November 3, 2011 | 11:36 a.m.

If you look at the list of things the CID says it will do with that money, the city is worse at and has less expertise at doing all of those things than the business owners downtown. Just look for a list of their proposed projects and ask yourself who exactly in city government is going to be designated to do those things, and why?

Also bear in mind that the tax is so vague, it could be used to simply build another mammoth parking structure.

Why not pass a 1/2 cent sales tax for people who shop at Wal-Mart, and use that money to do all these projects downtown? (Wal-Mart is a business which already relies on sweetheart tax deals--hardly fair competition for real, local, small business owners like those downtown.)

This would have the effect of funneling people from out-of-town corporate merchants in the burbs to local merchants in the city. And it would provide more revenue, to boot.
The alternative is the reverse, penalizing merchants downtown by telling their customers to go to chain stores elsewhere.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 3, 2011 | 11:59 a.m.

"Why not pass a 1/2 cent sales tax for people who shop at Wal-Mart"

There already is. As far as I know, all three Walmarts are in TDDs that levy an extra half-cent sales tax to pay for, among other things, the parking lots that their patrons assume are free. People who shop there and places such as the mall are kidding themselves if they believe they're getting free parking.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 3, 2011 | 12:13 p.m.

"... to an attorney billing upwards of $200/hr. ..."

That's modest as attorney fees go. I used to bill law firms $200/hr., plus travel, lodging, meals, etc. (but not in-transit time, unless I was doing work related to the situation while traveling).

Some situations required no travel. There's nothing better than sitting home on a snowy winter's day with a fire in the fireplace while reading legal depositions, and I read VERY SLOWLY. :)

I did business with an attorney in Columbia (contract reviews) - his services to me. He expressed surprise that I ONLY charged $200/hr. Go figure.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 3, 2011 | 1:37 p.m.

Jimmy, my understanding of TDDs is that they cannot pay for parking lots, but can be used for road improvements around the development, curbs and gutters, maybe stormwater and signage/lights. I think to actually spend money on-site they would have to form a CID, which I think was proposed for a shopping center near the Moser's on Rangeline, but my recollection was the developer withdrew the plans (seems that I happened to be at that council meeting if memory serves).

(Report Comment)
Eapen Thampy November 3, 2011 | 2:45 p.m.

Is the proposed downtown Columbia CID tax “taxation without representation”?

(Report Comment)
Steve Spellman November 3, 2011 | 9:06 p.m.

This is a symptom of the cult of collectivism. Proponents assume that individual businesses are unable to get together on their own to provide these services effectively. It is therefore assumed that these things can only be accomplished via a quasi-governmental organization, which would collect this revenue not by voluntary contributions, but by force (a tax).

I agree that if passed this will be a net detriment to downtown. There is no way the benefits can possibly outweigh the costs. Administrative overhead, in-fighting on priorities, etc. - anytime such an organization with diverse interests has a discretionary pot of money, it is a potential mess.

And Mr. Thampy is correct in his last comment, that this is potentially taxation without representation. A very few voters might decide to inflict a tax on anyone, from anywhere, that buys something downtown. Therefore a vast majority of people that would pay the 1/2 extra sales tax will have NEVER even had an opportunity to give consent. That does not sound like democracy to me.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush November 3, 2011 | 10:00 p.m.

Sometimes I buy goods,
Services in another
Country when travelling.

Sometimes those goods have
Been taxed without me casting
A vote. Still I buy.

Nevertheless, I
Think this tax is burdensome -

(Report Comment)
Nicholas Blond November 6, 2011 | 6:33 p.m.

All I know is I came home to a hand-written sticky note last night, asking me to vote on the proposal and thanking me for "my support." It was simply signed "Carrie."

Sorry, "Carrie" (I can only assume "Gartner")...I already submitted my "NO" vote a few days ago. Also, I'd like to point out that if you want to increase your salary, maybe you should apply for another job instead of trying to pass a vaguely-written tax proposal to give yourself a raise on the backs of taxpayers and business owners in the middle of a horrible economy.

Furthermore, I would like for Ms. Gartner to personally explain to me how she plans on developing a smartphone app for downtown Columbia that out-competes Google, FourSquare, and FaceBook at their own game. Anyone who truly knows how to outsmart all three of those 800-pound gorrilas at location-based services should be seeking VC financing in Silicon Valley--not taxpayer money in a sleepy Midwestern college town.

I also find the "small business and entrepreneurship assistance" component of the proposal equally as laughable--the state, and University extension offices, and countless websites already publish outstanding resources for prospective start-ups, information on SBA loans, writing business plans, etc.. All of these are free online. In this day and age, paying for a bricks-and-mortar information office/service for anything that can be made available online is absolutely ignorant.

All of the services and projects included in this proposal wreak of unnecessary bloating of an already-questionable organization--I firmly believe this proposal is more about people securing themselves a has nothing to do with helping our city, it's citizens, or it's businesses.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle November 6, 2011 | 6:54 p.m.

I've heard people don't shop downtown because it's too exposed to the elements. You can't go from shop to shop without getting wet, if it's raining.

Maybe they should use that money to build some kind of canopy over the sidewalk. That would help draw more customers downtown, wouldn't it?

(yes, I'm being sarcastic)

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum November 6, 2011 | 9:21 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Corey Parks November 6, 2011 | 9:22 p.m.

"Furthermore, I would like for Ms. Gartner to personally explain to me how she plans on developing a smartphone app for downtown Columbia that out-competes Google, Four Square, and Face Book at their own game. Anyone who truly knows how to outsmart all three of those 800-pound gorillas at location-based services should be seeking VC financing in Silicon Valley--not taxpayer money in a sleepy Midwestern college town."

Exactly. I read an article last week and have seen similar comments in the paper where someone from city hall or a rep talks about implementing a mobile app for bus services like ones in use in other college towns. Why the F would you start over? Just use the technology already developed. Next they will be trying to come up with a new round wheel to get these newly painted buses around town.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 6, 2011 | 10:52 p.m.

Corey and the newly painted buses:

The other day, did I really see a bus with the words "Bite Me" painted across the back?

Googled it: hmmmm, a Columbia business after all.

Bad taste all around, methinks. I'm sure some folks get a playground giggle out of it, tho.

I'm so proud.

(I'm old enuf to remember the origins...which were fightin' words in those dayz. I guess evolution pops up in all sorts of places.)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 6, 2011 | 11:10 p.m.


Hmmmm....if "Bite Me" is good enuf for a city bus, is it good enuf for the Missourian rules when someone gets annoyed with another poster?

Probably not. But it would be interesting to read a Missourian editor's thoughts on the matter. Would the editor parse the context and say the situations are completely different, or would they say the words are in rather poor taste all around?

PS: Truth is...there has been no evolution of the meaning of the words. They mean the same thing today as they did several years ago.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 7, 2011 | 7:14 a.m.

"Why the F would you start over? Just use the technology already developed."

When did the city say it wouldn't use the technology already developed?

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks November 7, 2011 | 8:26 a.m.

I will try to find the article online. I read it in the paper tribune or missourian and have already went to recycling. It specifically said that they were working with MU students to come up with they own technology like that in us in "blah blah blah:

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 7, 2011 | 9:24 a.m.

The article says that "University of Missouri computer science students have been working to develop such a tracking system as part of a course." Unfortunately it doesn't say whether MU would provide the system to the city for free. Either way, the city is considering spending $700K for the server and GPS units for the buses. I'm familiar with such systems, and $700K sounds about right for an off-the-shelf system that has to be customized somewhat simply because each customer's needs are somewhat unique. In other words, I don't think the vendor would scratch-build it just for Columbia, at least not for $700K.

That said, I think there's an opportunity for MU students to create not just the software, but the hardware, too. There's a big market for such solutions -- and not just for mass-transit applications -- and being able to say you helped design and implement one while still in school would be a major plus when looking for your first job.

(Report Comment)

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