Commissioners consider road tax for November ballot

Wednesday, July 25, 2007 | 3:43 p.m. CDT; updated 4:53 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Boone County Commissioners are planning to put a new half-percent sales tax for road improvements on this November’s ballot.

The current 10-year, half-percent sales tax that expires in September 2008 will also be put up for renewal. If voters approve both taxes, Boone County’s sales tax would rise to just over 8 percent.

Although the commissioners see the capital improvement tax as a way to ease the strain on the Public Works Department’s budget, they recognize that voters will probably be wary.

The commissioners have been meeting with representatives from cities and towns across Boone County to figure out what kind of taxes would best fund local needs.

County and city officials reported at a Monday work session that county residents were generally satisfied with how the tax revenue was used and would support keeping the current tax in place.

Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins said the City Council’s highest priority concerning the issue was seeing the road tax extended, and Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson read a letter from the Centralia city administrator, stating that the Centralia Board of Aldermen supported the tax extension.

Last year, the tax generated $11.7 million in revenue for the county’s Public Works Department, or 76 percent of the department’s total budget. Pearson projected that $12 million will come in from the tax this year.

Of that revenue, about half goes to fund road maintenance, which has increased in cost as labor materials become more expensive and as the county grows and improves more streets.

“Our budget has just had a natural shift toward maintenance,” said David Mink, head of Public Works.

Additional revenue is needed to balance those current needs and citizen expectations, said Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson. As more money is spent on maintenance, there are less funds available for new capital improvement projects like the Gans Road interchange or Scott Boulevard.

The proposed solution is a second 10-year, half-percent sales tax that would exclusively fund capital improvements on county roads, something that the commission recognized would be a hard sell to voters.

Because of the faltering economic climate, “it’s going to be a very, very difficult issue to pass,” Northern Commissioner Skip Elkin said. “I’d love to see it because the needs are here, but it’s going to be tough.”

Educating voters will be key, Pearson said.

“What it comes down to is explaining what we’ve done with revenue from current tax and showing (citizens) what improvements we’ve made and then what we need to do,” Pearson said. “It really is a matter of explaining it to voters, and they’ll decide.”

If voters reject the second tax, Pearson said the county will continue to make do with what they have, but there will be fewer capital improvements and they would take longer to complete.

Still, Pearson stressed that the county has to budget for beyond its plans in order to deal with unexpected needs, like roads for Columbia’s new high school.

“You have a plan and you’re working toward that, but you need some flexibility,” Pearson said, explaining why the commission is proposing the second tax.

Commissioners will meet again with municipal representatives Aug. 7 to prioritize future improvement projects and further discuss the details of both tax proposals.

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