One of Columbia’s two sales taxes for parks is scheduled to expire in 2022, so the conversation already is starting about what to ask voters to do in 2021.

At a work session before its regular meeting Monday night, the Columbia City Council heard a presentation from Parks and Recreation Director Mike Griggs that offered several options.

As it stands, the city has two one-eighth-cent sales taxes to support parks. One is permanent and funds the operation of Griggs’ department.

The other is temporary and goes back to voters every five or six years. It primarily pays to develop parks and buy land for new ones.

Griggs said the council could consider:

  • Asking voters to extend the sunset on the renewable tax to 10 years.
  • Asking voters to make the renewable tax permanent.
  • Asking voters to also approve an additional quarter-cent permanent sales tax. That would bring the total park sales tax in the city to one-half cent and free up $5.5 million in general revenue for other departments to use.

The city’s total sales tax now is 2%, but it jumps to 7.975% when Boone County and state taxes are factored in.

A quarter-cent increase would make total sales tax in Columbia 8.225%, not including taxes charged by transportation development districts and community improvement districts, which collect a half-cent to a penny on the dollar.

In fiscal 2019, the Parks and Recreation Department received $2.89 million from the sales tax. Its total budget that year was $5.85 million.

In 2015, the department conducted a survey to get citizen opinions on the tax. Fifty-one percent said they were very supportive of making the tax permanent, and 21% said they were somewhat supportive. The department plans to conduct another survey in advance of any election.

Council members generally were reticent Monday to ask for too much, although they had nothing but praise for the performance of the Parks and Recreation Department.

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas, an outspoken proponent of the trail system, said he would support extending the window on the renewable tax to 10 years, but he didn’t think he could support adding more sales tax. He would prefer looking at an increase in property tax.

Before the pandemic, the city was seeing a huge decline in sales tax revenue, one of its largest sources of income. The situation grew far worse when COVID-19 shut down many local businesses. City staff expect a 10% decline in sales tax revenue this year and an additional 1% drop in fiscal 2021.

With all this economic upheaval, many wonder whether now is a good time to increase the tax burden.

“I get asked a lot,” Griggs said. “Is the time even good to do it?”

Actually, it is, Griggs said. He noted that Columbia’s parks — and trails, in particular — have seen a lot more use during the pandemic.

Counters set up to measure trail use showed an 85% increase in April 2020 from April 2019. The same comparison saw a 188% increase on the Scott’s Branch Trail, a 137% increase on the County House Trail and a 62% increase on the MKT Trail.

City Manager John Glascock asked the council to clue him in on any other tax issues they might be considering as talks about the proposed budget for fiscal 2021 loom.

The council has a full-day budget work session scheduled for Aug. 13. Glascock said he’d like to be prepared for anything the council might plan to ask for.

Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp spoke up, saying the city ought to ask voters for a local gas tax increase that could be used to improve streets. Despite the pandemic, he said, it’s time for the city to find ways to stop cutting and strive for something better.

“We’re not gonna cut our way to greatness,” he said.

  • I'm a reporter covering city and county government and other public life topics and an assistant city editor. I also study investigative journalism at MU. Reach me at wksg8b@mail.missouri.edu. You can also find me on twitter @WillSkipworth.

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