Blue Springs seeks sales tax for community center and parks

10/29/2013 12:00 AM

10/29/2013 9:29 PM

Jackson County’s proposed sales tax for medical research came as something of a surprise for Blue Springs officials. Up until late summer, they thought they had the November ballot to themselves to ask voters for a half-cent increase for parks and a new community center.

But now that the Blue Springs parks sales tax has become Question 2, its backers are going all out to get it approved.

“I’m still really optimistic about our tax,” said Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross.

The mayor is convinced that Blue Springs voters will support the tax because it will improve the quality of life and draw more people to live in the city.

The Blue Springs sales tax, if approved, would bring in about $3 million a year, which would be used to make repairs on current parks, develop future parks and pay the debt service on the construction of a community center that would cost about $35 million.

There is no sunset on the tax. It needs a simple majority to pass.

November seemed like a good time to put it on the ballot because there would be no commuter rail on the county ballot, Ross said.

“We went into this thinking there would be only this on the ballot. And lo and behold, we got surprised,” Ross said.

In August, the Jackson County Legislature decided to put its own dedicated sales tax on the ballot. That proposal, also for a half-cent, would be collected for 20 years, raising $40 million a year for a new Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine. Most of the money would go to support medical research at Children’s Mercy Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.

Since then, the medical tax has run into some stiff opposition. A Springfield-based lawyer has run extensive television advertising against it. And mayors of five Jackson County cities — including Blue Springs — have opted to remain neutral rather than endorse it.

Now the backers of the parks tax have a job ahead of them. The city, which can’t directly ask people to vote “yes,” has focused on putting out as much information as possible about what the tax would do.

The city website has links to a video showing cracked pavement and sagging chain link fences at its current parks, as well as renderings of the proposed community center. Dennis Dovel, director of Blue Springs parks and recreation, said the money would be used for repairs on the existing parks, as well as for development of future parks.

The existing parks need about $15 million in repairs, he said, and as residential areas grow, the city would like to develop 200 of its 600 park acres. The city also plans to use $150,000 of the revenue to improve services for older adults, he said.

City officials in Blue Springs have talked about building a new community center since the late 1990s.

“I think any time there are two issues on the ballot, there’s reason for concern,” Dovel said. But the city is hoping to keep things clear for the voters by focusing on its own tax proposal.

The sales tax would bring Blue Springs’ rate to 8.475 percent if it passes. It would become 8.975 if the medical tax also got approval, Ross said.

Ross and other backers said they are also heartened by the fact that other ballot issues for schools and public safety have been approved in the past, and that the political action committee in support of the tax was able to quickly raise $15,000 for its campaign.

Dave Wright, co-chairman of the Citizens for Quality Parks and Healthy Lifestyles, said voter confusion is the biggest issue the PAC will face. If the parks tax were alone on the ballot, he said, “we would only be dealing with our citizens on that one topic. We could have said vote yes. It would have been simple.”

Now volunteers will focus only on the parks issue and try to stay away from talking about the medical research tax, he said. The PAC will campaign through its website, Facebook and social media, as well as through personal contact.

Wright is convinced voters will respond positively because campaigners will take the time to explain it, he said.

“People will clearly see where the money is going and how it will benefit Blue Springs.”

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