Consultant urges quick decision on 911 tax

Wednesday, August 15, 2012 | 8:30 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A consultant told city and county officials Wednesday that they should quickly plan to mount a thorough political campaign if they hope to pass a new sales tax to pay for new emergency response and management efforts.

The Public Safety Joint Communications Committee, which originally had hoped to put a sales tax on the November ballot, on Wednesday continued discussions about whether to instead place a tax proposal on the April ballot.

Consultant Heather Grote, who helped with a Greene County campaign for a one-eighth-cent sales tax for law enforcement last spring, advised the committee to act quickly.

Boone County Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill invited Grote to speak to the committee about what steps it should take before bringing a tax proposal to the public. She discussed the steps required for setting up an independent campaign committee, raising money, polling and beginning voter outreach.

In order to mount an effective campaign, an independent committee would need to raise about $40,000, Grote said. It would have a better idea exactly how much it should spend on a campaign after polling voters and seeing how they respond to the proposal.

Joe Piper, interim operations manager of Public Safety Joint Communications, said there is a consensus that the city and county need to revamp the 911 emergency response center and address outdated organizational structures that were established in the 1970s.

“The committee has recognized that there is a problem," Piper said. "There are staffing, funding and governance issues for 911. Everybody agrees, but there is still discussion needed as to what is the best solution to the problem.”

The committee has two options: It can seek an increase in general sales taxes or it can take advantage of a state statute that allows counties to establish a sales tax specifically for emergency services, Piper said.

While committee members didn't decide which approach to pursue, they agreed they need to do so as soon as possible. Grote told the committee members that the sooner they begin to organize, the more effective they can be.

City Manager Mike Matthes, who had to leave halfway through the meeting, wants to see concrete action by the next committee meeting on Sept. 19.

“We need to come back next meeting with something, a document or proposal, to act on," Matthes said. "We’ve got to communicate more than just a month from now.”

Other members of the committee, including Brenda Jensen, manager of University Hospital Emergency Services, shared the sense of urgency. 

“We need to make a decision and then begin operationalizing that decision," Jensen said. "We need to make some concrete decisions and go for it.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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