Jackson County legislators grumble over plans to have taxpayers pay for research tax election

08/13/2013 5:07 PM

08/13/2013 7:12 PM

One costly sticking point remains unresolved as civic leaders press to have a medical research sales tax put before Jackson County voters this fall.

Just who would pay the roughly $1 million it would cost to conduct what amounts to a special election?

Backers of the proposed half-cent sales tax say taxpayers ought to foot the bill.

But a majority of county legislators say those proposing the tax ought to cover the cost.

The debate could make for a contentious meeting Monday, when members of the Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures outline their proposal for the first time to the full Jackson County Legislature, which will decide whether there will even be a public vote.

Fingers are being pointed both ways on the cost issue now — less than two weeks before the deadline to get things put on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The measure’s supporters are assuming that taxpayers will pay for it, based on assurances from County Executive Mike Sanders.

“The only thing I’ve ever heard mentioned is that there’s election costs for November in the (county) budget,” said cures committee consultant Steve Glorioso.

The Legislature set aside that money for a county transit election that has been put off. Glorioso said it would be surprising if backers of the research tax were asked to cover the cost of the election.

“That’s not been presented as a possibility by the (Sanders) administration,” he said.

However, seven of the nine county legislators said in separate interviews with The Star this week that they believe the civic community should pay to print ballots, pay poll workers and rent spaces for polling places.

After all, were it not for a parks levy in Blue Springs, there would be no election at all in Jackson County that day, as things stand now, according to the Jackson County and Kansas City election boards.

“I would hope that whoever wants to put it on would be paying for it,” said Fred Arbanas, a member of the Legislature.

Also holding that opinion were his legislative colleagues Scott Burnett, Crystal Williams, Dan Tarwater, Theresa Garza Ruiz, Greg Grounds and Bob Spence.

Only Dennis Waits said he had made no assumptions about who should have the responsibility for paying election costs. James Tindall did not immediately return phone messages.

The majority said it was only fair that proponents of the tax cover the cost of the election.

Why, they asked, should county taxpayers pay for a vote on a tax measure proposed by and mostly sending tax dollars to non-county government institutions?

The estimated $40 million a year raised by the tax would go to hire researchers and equip laboratories at three institutions without direct ties to the county: Children’s Mercy Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Usually when you are doing ballot initiatives, it’s the people wanting it on the ballot (who pay),” said Garza Ruiz.

Sanders was on vacation Tuesday. But his chief of staff, Calvin Williford, addressed the criticism by saying it is entirely appropriate to have the county pick up the tab for the election.

Not only is there money in the budget to pay those costs, he said, but his boss believes the tax would benefit the entire county.

By underwriting a proposed Institute for Translational Research and Medicine, the tax would help create hundreds of jobs and possibly bring the county direct returns on investments in new medical innovations.

“Therefore, it’s a county economic development initiative,” Williford said, as well as holding the potential to improve public health.

And that means it’s fair, he said, for county taxpayers to pay for the election.

That argument might have been an easier sell were members of the Legislature in a better mood. Some were miffed because they weren’t briefed on the possibility of such a ballot issue coming forward this fall.

“The first I knew about it was from reading it in the newspaper,” Arbanas said.

Sanders was discussing the issue with backers of the ballot measure weeks before some legislators were informed in individual meetings just before a public announcement.

“It was testy when they met with us,” Tarwater said. “It just seems like it was done behind closed doors.”

Had there been earlier discussions, Williams said, she might have advised backers to wait for a later election, when more jurisdictions could have shared the cost of holding a vote.

“This is why a lot of people who want to put things on the ballot do it when they have an election scheduled,” Williams said.

But perhaps there is still a chance for some cost sharing. Spence suggested that someone with deep pockets might be able to defray some of the cost.

“I’ve got to believe there’s some big money out there that’s going to step up to the plate,” he said.

Previously, the Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures announced it would spend $1 million on its election campaign. As of Tuesday, $100,000 of that had been raised with a single contribution from the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City.

Meanwhile, campaign spokesman Pat O’Neill acknowledged that discussions were going on behind the scenes with regard to the concerns being voiced by legislators.

Asked who is going to pay for the election, O’Neill said: “That is, I guess, still being worked out, as far as I know.”

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