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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: New 911 tax increase is the wrong call

By Steve Spellman
March 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Boone County voters will decide Tuesday whether to add a three-eighths-cent sales tax for Public Safety Joint Communications. The 911 center and emergency management are vital services, but Proposition #1 is NOT the answer.

Frankly, Joint Communications has been neglected by our public officials. Various agencies have irresponsibly held back from their existing budgets vital funds to pay their fair share of growing 911 needs for decades now.

I had the opportunity to tour the 911 center and found things just as Proposition #1 proponents describe: severely understaffed, cramped quarters, obsolete equipment, sensitive radio equipment relegated to the backup generator shack, etc.

Manager Joe Piper, in his modest office that doubles as a training room, confirmed that cost-sharing is largely proportional based on call volume for each agency. However, funding through the 13 user agencies they work for has not made it to joint communications in proportion to higher demand for emergency services in our growing community and other modern trends.

To try and keep up acceptable levels of service, Piper continually asks each budget cycle, but the response from the agencies is that they don't have the money.

Joint Communications reports to Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes, so I went to one of his morning coffee hours to chat. I then had discussions with several who are actively campaigning for Prop. #1: Boone County Commissioners Karen Miller and Janet Thompson, as well as Sheriff Dwayne Carey, and a few others.

I observed that everybody was sure careful with his or her words. Yet I refrain from pointing a finger at any anybody in particular, as I sensed long-standing complications beyond the control of their respective offices.

I learned that some agencies have been able to "invest" at certain times in the past, and sometimes not. Some have chipped in more over time, some less so. This rose suspicions with me that budgetary politics has been at play.

The fact is, we are all already paying taxes (via property, sales, land line telephone, etc.) for various packages of emergency services. We entrust public servants to allocate those funds for all the things they need to help keep us safe, as the case may be: fire stations, police cars, staff, training, pensions, as well as planning for disasters, radio communications for officers in the field and answering the phone.

Like any organization, you budget some resources to answer the phone. I don't see other parts of emergency budgets in nearly this dire need. I don't see firetrucks broken down on the side of the road, waiting for parts to be found on eBay. Are they telling us they can't find a small part of existing larger budgets to help answer the phone?

Even Grass Roots Organizing is alarmed that if Prop. #1 passes, sales taxes at many local stores would shoot up to 8.6 percent, particularly burdening low-income citizens purchasing life essentials.

If combined with two separate pending proposals in Missouri, we could see sales taxes here jump to more than 10 percent. Where's the tipping point when citizens instead go shop in other towns, or online, or not at all?

If Prop. #1 passes, we will collectively pay in $9.2 million more annually, but the city will redirect the $1.7 million it currently spends to other things. In an economy where many are struggling to get by, our community cannot afford to pay so much more for services we all thought we were already paying for.

Prop. #1 has no sunset provision, either. So even after a new $11 million bomb-proof bunker is paid off, this tax carries on automatically.

I don't blame proponents for seeking a solution, but I don't appreciate the mantra that "there is no Plan B" — that it's their way or the highway. I have heard some offensive scare tactics, too: claims if this doesn't pass, good luck with that 911 call for your grandpa's heart attack or if your young daughter is home alone during a break in.

I respect our public emergency agencies, but they need to pay their (our) fair share into vital 911 services, from the money we are already paying. If one or more agencies do, in fact, need more money — for stations, trucks, staff and answering the phone — then they should be going to their respective existing tax bases and have a vote on that.

Prop. #1 is not the answer. Instead, we should demand government accountability, not continuing to sweep problems under the rug with a taxpayer bailout. 911 needs our support, so let's instead find a more sustainable solution that works for everyone.

Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.