Taxing Decisions

Voters will decide on Tuesday whether Columbia’s plan for future projects is fair.
Sunday, November 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Columbia officials could find themselves in a dilemma after Tuesday’s elections if voters reject any of six propositions that seek funding for major capital improvements.

The first five propositions ask voters to tax themselves and others who shop in Columbia to pay for projects ranging from an ice rink, a farmers market and ballfields to new fire stations, new firetrucks and street construction. The sixth proposition calls for increasing development fees to pay for improvements to major streets.

The Columbia City Council in August voted to place all six propositions on the ballot, gambling that the importance of the projects to the citizenry would win the day. By floating so many issues in one election, however, the council runs the risk that voters might experience ballot shock. The failure of any or all of the propositions to pass could send the council scrambling to find new ways of raising money for projects officials have deemed necessary or desirable.

If all five propositions calling for extended or increased sales taxes pass, Columbia shoppers would see sales tax rise from the current 7.35 percent to 7.475 percent. That excludes the half-cent sales tax charged by transportation development districts, or TDDs, that are popping up around town.

If all the tax propositions fail, total sales tax in the city would fall to 6.975 percent within a few months.

Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku said the council placed all the tax issues on the same ballot because it had to. “These sales taxes are set to expire in the near future so this is the time they need to be voted on,” he said.

The city’s quarter-cent capital improvements sales tax would expire Dec. 31 if voters reject Propositions 3 and 4, while a renewable one-eighth-cent sales tax for parks would end March 31 if they reject Propositions 1 and 2. A permanent one-eighth-cent tax for parks would still remain.

Janku said voter feedback in previous years prompted the council to formulate six individual requests for funding.

It’s all about giving voters a choice, council members have said.

“In the past voters have indicated they like to vote separately on individual matters,” Janku said.

Proposition 1 would extend the eighth-cent sales tax for parks for five years, generating about $12 million for existing parks, new neighborhood parks and trail and greenbelt projects. Proposition 2 would extend the same tax for an additional two years, providing about $5 million for an ice rink and a multipurpose recreational building that would include accommodations for a farmers market and basketball and volleyball courts.

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said progress on parks would suffer if the measures fail.

“Capital improvements to parks would be very limited,” he said. “We would have to step back and fully re-evaluate our priorities. The city would continue to have funds for maintenance and operations, but that would not stop the aging of the parks.”

Members of the Columbia Farmers’ Market are relying on Proposition 2 to pay for a permanent shelter that they’ve wanted for years. Their parent group, Sustainable Farms and Communities, has been unable to raise enough money for the building.

“We think it will pass, but if it doesn’t, we’ll have to figure out what the next step is,” market member Guy Clark said.

The city since 1991 has relied on a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for some of its most expensive and ambitious projects, including the MKT Nature/Fitness Trail, the Activity and Recreation Center and major street work. It wants voters to continue that tax for at least another decade.

Proposition 3 would extend the tax for three years to raise $15 million for fire stations, firetrucks, a police training facility and new warning sirens, while Proposition 4 would stretch it another seven years to provide $35 million for streets and other transportation projects. Proposition 5, the last tax issue, seeks a new one-eighth-cent sales tax that would bring in an estimated $25 million over 10 years. That money would be reserved for work on arterial and collector streets.

Some opponents of the ballot measures argue sales tax is regressive, meaning it places too much of a burden on the poor. City officials, however, say sales tax is a good way to generate revenue because it forces people from out of town who use city services to foot some of the bill.

The City Council also hopes voters will ask developers to chip in a little more by approving Proposition 6, which would push the city’s development charge to 50 cents per square foot, a 400 percent increase, over five years. That measure would produce roughly $19 million for streets.

“We need to try and stay as current as possible with the road system,” said City Manager Ray Beck, explaining that the city would have to cut spending on streets to about $2.6 million a year if the propositions fail. That’s down from about $5.5 million per year now. Approval of the ballot measures would boost spending to about $10 million per year.

“Without funding, the city would get behind substantially,” Beck said.

Under state law, the city would have to wait at least a year before bringing back to voters any proposal that fails. That’s exactly what the folks at Timely and Responsible Road Infrastructure Finance, or TARRIF, hopes will happen. TARRIF members include Karl Skala, a former member of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, and Ben Londeree, who served on a mayor’s committee that reviewed the city’s road needs in preparation for the ballot issues.

TARRIF wants voters to approve Proposition 6, saying it is a decent first step, but reject Propositions 4 and 5. That, they argue, will force city leaders to develop a more comprehensive and equitable plan for addressing the city’s transportation needs.

“It appears to TARRIF that the only way to encourage the council to seriously address these issues is to deprive them of the funds expected from their extended and/or increased road-tax proposals,” TARRIF says in a list of its talking points. “Though it will create a near-term shortfall, we expect that it will also lead to an improved long-term road finance policy and will require new development to ‘pay as you go.’ ”

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