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Columbia groups, residents oppose 911 sales tax

Monday, March 18, 2013 | 8:54 p.m. CDT; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 19, 2013

COLUMBIA — Karin Davis uses a wheelchair and lives in public housing, subsisting off little more than $1,000 a month.

She has fibromyalgia with accompanying balance problems, congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a bulging disk in her back.

Davis is a registered voter and plans to darken in the "no" bubble on the ballot for Proposition 1 on April 2. Grass Roots Organizing said Davis is just one example of a resident who would be hit hard by the proposed sales tax for 911 and emergency management services.

Grass Roots Organizing and Keep Columbia Free are two Columbia organizations that oppose the three-eighths-cent sales tax, which would generate about $9.3 million a year. The money would be used to build a new 911 and emergency management center, add personnel, update technology and cover the annual cost of operation.

A $20 million bond issue would bring money flowing in immediately after the election if the proposition passes. The $9.3 million would be split up: $2.2 million would go toward retiring bond debt each year, and about $6.4 million would pay for the annual costs of 911 operations. Currently, $2.7 million from user agencies such as the city, the county and fire districts, is funding 911 operations.

“(The sales tax) impacts people who are elderly on fixed income. It impacts people who are disabled on fixed income. It impacts people who are making minimum wage and having to raise a family,” Davis said. “It impacts those people more than it does people with greater incomes.”

Prices rise with inflation and increase sales tax, but Davis’ income doesn’t always increase year to year. Until this year, she had gone three years without a change to her income. She said she feels the 911 sales tax would wipe out the small increase she's gained.

“Isn’t there any other way to fund this?” Davis asked. “Yes, people need 911. But it should have a different, more equitable way of being paid for.”

Grass Roots Organizing advocates for Columbia residents such as Davis. The group is against Proposition 1, arguing that sales taxes are regressive.

"We're saying no," organizer Mary Hussmann said. Times are hard enough for the lower-income class and even for the middle class right now.

Hussmann pointed to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economics Policy that documents the effects of sales tax on different income groups. It was released in January.

She said Grass Roots Organizing realizes that the 911 service needs to operate at a certain standard, but she said that many people are in economic crisis right now. Minimum wage is $7.35  per hour, and Hussmann said that's not a livable income.

“In these uncertain times, to take $9 million out of folks that already have pockets that are too empty is, to us, unfair and just not right,” Hussmann said.

She warned that the tax would add to the burden of those already struggling. Local, state and national factors already make it hard for people to pay bills and feed and clothe their children, she said.

“We have to look at what we can pay for and what we can afford,” Hussmann said. “Whether we could afford every bell and whistle that anyone could think of is really something people of the community should take into consideration.”

Hussmann questioned why the $2.7 million budgeted now for 911 services would be redirected to other uses — without input from voters — instead of continuing to fund 911 service and to help pay for improvements.

Grass Roots Organizing representatives have reached out to Columbia residents by phone, through door-to-door visits and with fliers to inform voters about their opinion of the proposition. Grass Roots Organizing registers voters and provides rides to polls for anyone that needs the service, regardless of how they plan to vote.

“We’re trying to make sure their voices get heard,” Hussmann said. “Win, lose or draw, we have positions on things, and we’re going to stick to them.”

Another group, Keep Columbia Free, also has come out against the proposed sales tax. In a Friday news release, the group said it has concerns about a new annual budget of about $8.7 million, more than triple that of the current $2.7 million budget, and a scarcity of concrete details on how the sales tax money and the proceeds of a $20 million bond issue would be spent.

Asked at a Keep Columbia Safe forum last week why a sunset wasn't included in the tax proposal, Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey said that 10 years from now, the 911 center will use technology that hasn't been created yet. Proceeds from the tax have to account for those unknown costs, he said.

Carey also said that if Missourians eventually approve a cellphone tax to pay for 911 services statewide, the three-eighths-cent tax here could be rescinded. Missouri is the only state that lacks such a statewide tax.

The Keep Columbia Free release said residents already pay more than enough for other government projects. The release said city and county officials have wasted taxpayer money on “more glamorous and less-needed budgetary objectives aimed at making headlines rather than providing safety.”

Mark Flakne, president of Keep Columbia Free, cited a few city projects as examples: the Blind Boone Home, the parking garage at Fifth and Walnut streets, the FastCat buses downtown, bike lanes at Forum and Stadium boulevards and a proposed new airport terminal.

“What this really looks like is a gambling addict who goes to a blackjack table and loses all his money and then comes over and asks for a loan,” Flakne said. “Do you enable that person? No.”

Keep Columbia Free concedes the 911 system has serious needs but doesn’t back the tax as a viable option. “We’re not against a 911 service,” Flakne said. “We’re against government waste.”

Steve Spellman is a Columbia resident who also is concerned about government accountability. He called the sales tax a bailout for the city and county officials.

Spellman also co-chairs the Government Affairs Committee with the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He became part of the public discussion after touring the Joint Communications and Emergency Management facilities.

He said he doesn’t understand why money from user agencies funding 911 operations isn’t going toward fixing the problems. He questioned why city and county officials couldn’t go to the user agencies and figure out how to increase money from the tax bases already funding operations.

Spellman is scheduled to speak about the proposal during a meeting of the Boone County Pachyderm Club about the 911 tax on at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Rock Bridge Hy-Vee Club Room located at 405 E Nifong Blvd.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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