Road tax won’t be on ballot

Efforts have been redirected to renewing current taxes.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA - Boone County voters will have only one tax measure to consider in November after all.

With only 2½ weeks left until their deadline for getting issues on the general election ballot, Boone County Commissioners decided to postpone a proposed half-cent increase in the sales tax that funds major road projects. Instead, it will focus its efforts on securing the renewal of the current half-cent tax that is set to expire in September 2008.

After the November election, county and city officials will begin working on plans for a capital improvements tax that could appear on the August 2008 ballot.

The decision came on the heels of feedback from elected officials in cities around the county, and from County Treasurer Kay Murray.

At a Tuesday afternoon work session, Murray suggested that the commission wait and explore its options rather than rushing to sell two measures at once.

“With 2½ weeks left, I think you’d really have to do a lot of work to get that passed,” she said.

Murray also asked the commission to reconsider whether a higher sales tax is a good idea. The county, she said, is nearing the acceptable ceiling on sales taxes. The sales tax exceeds 8 cents on the dollar in some parts of the county.

Instead, Murray suggested a property tax as a means of financing road and bridge projects. She said that the commission could ask voters to authorize a large dollar amount of bonds, then sell the bonds as necessary over a period of time to finance specific projects. The county would pay off the bonds using proceeds of a property tax increase. Under that plan, a 40-cent property tax would generate about $10 million per year.

Regardless of what form any new tax might take, Murray advised commissioners to wait so as not to jeopardize the renewal of the current tax, to which voters are already accustomed.

“The point I want to get across is that the half-cent renewal is what you need this year, and then study the other options,” she said.

Ultimately, the advice from Murray and others proved persuasive. Last week, Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson heard similar concerns from elected officials around the county.

“I think it’s probably a smart move to step back and take a look at this capital piece,” said Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller.

Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin agreed with Murray that a property tax could be a good alternative. The county reduced its property tax years ago when the sales tax for roads was first approved.

“With some of these big projects, there’s no way we can pay as we go,” Elkin said. “That’s why bonding is attractive. We can jump on and get some of these big things done.”

Representatives from cities and chambers of commerce agreed that it was a good idea to take more time and explore options. But they differ on if a property tax is the solution.

Gary Riedel, presiding commissioner of the Centralia Special Road District, said that there are a significant number of county residents who would rather see a higher sales tax.

Another concern raised at the work session was that having only the renewal on the ballot would seem short-sighted.

“It concerns me that we’re not doing anything but staying where we are,” Hallsville Alderman Larry Moore said. “We’re not moving forward.”

“Even if we pass this current half-cent, we’re just treading water,” Elkin said in agreement.

As a result, the county will revisit the potential for a new capital improvements tax after November’s election as a “step two” to improve and maintain county roads. Miller said that they will have until May 27 to decide whether to go for an August ballot issue or not.

Meanwhile, the commission emphasized the need to get all hands on deck to campaign for both measures. Commissioners are not allowed to spend county money to advocate for its approval.

“We very much need every city on board to get the renewal,” Miller said. “We need everyone working together for the capital improvements.”

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