Shawnee might let voters decide on 10-year sales tax for roads

06/18/2014 10:38 AM

06/18/2014 10:38 AM

A plan to increase Shawnee’s sales tax to repair its deteriorating streets will be coming back before the city council this summer.

Council members decided Tuesday to move a proposed three-eighths cent citywide tax out of committee and put the issue up for discussion at their July 28 meeting. If approved, the question would go before voters in the Nov. 4 general election.

The three-eighths cent proposal was the biggest increase of the three options the council has been considering since early this year. It would raise $3.75 million a year and would last for 10 years starting April 1, 2015. The council also had looked at a one-eighth and a two-eighth percent increase. Each eighth of a cent raises about $1.25 million a year.

Supporters say the tax increase is necessary to catch up on street repairs the city has been falling behind on since the recession. The city has 780 lane miles of streets, about 12 percent of which are rated from “poor” to “failed.” But the regular street repair budget of about $4.1 million, which comes from the gasoline tax, an impact fee on the landfill and the general fund, does not provide enough money to keep pace with the ever-increasing cost of those repairs, according to staff estimates.

Some council members voted it out of committee with caveats, saying they wanted the voters to get a chance to make the call. It moved forward on a 6-2 vote, with councilmen Dan Pflumm and Mike Kemmling voting no.

Much of the discussion at the committee meeting centered on whether the city had done enough to find cuts in the rest of the budget and whether good decisions had been made in the past to prioritize street spending. Kemmling, for instance, said the council should make more of an effort to cut other programs so a lower, more voter-friendly sales tax increase could be offered. “We should get out the red pen first,” he said.

The council delayed a vote last February that would have put the issue on the April ballot because members wanted to look for other cuts. But City Manager Carol Gonzales told the committee that program cuts would not cover the gap between repairs needed and money budgeted for street upkeep.

Other council members said the poorly maintained streets could put off developers. Councilwoman Michelle Distler said she was leery of a sales tax increase, especially on food, because of the rising rates of poverty in the county. “But no developer is going to want to come into the city if we don’t have quality roads,” she said.

Supporters also said a sales tax paid partly by out-of-town shoppers would be better than a property tax increase that puts the burden entirely on Shawnee residents. Councilman Jeff Vaught said 40 percent of the sales tax paid in Shawnee comes from people who live outside the city.

However that figure was questioned by Shawnee resident Ray Erlichman, who spoke when members of the audience were invited to give their views. Erlichman also warned that higher gas prices may cause a drop in shopping and sales tax revenue. But, he said, he agrees that something has to be done to improve road conditions.

Gregg Snell, also from the audience, criticized the council for not going into enough depth to find inefficiencies in its budget before heading toward a sales tax increase. “Not one of you knows the sources of all the revenue spent on roads, yet you know we need to spend more,” he said. The city “needs to figure out where the money came from, where it was spent and why that wasn’t enough. Otherwise it’s just, more, more, more. Give me more money and I’ll do better next time.”

Councilman Neal Sawyer questioned the tax increase for a different reason. He said the amount raised still won’t be enough to put curbs and gutters in some parts of the city that don’t yet have them. But he liked the idea that the sales tax money could not be diverted into other spending.

A three-eighths increase is “just the same old same old,” Sawyer said. “No new curbs, no new sidewalks. We’re doing nothing.” The city needs to step up with a better budgeting plan, he said. “I for one believe the public is getting tired of us doing nothing.”

Council members who supported the plan said they went with the bigger increase because smaller ones would not raise enough to keep up with street repairs, and they didn’t want to be in the position of asking for another increase if the sales tax falls short.

“Me voting to more this forward this three-eighths is not me raising taxes,” said Vaught. “That’s me giving the public the opportunity to decide the quality of streets they want to drive on.”

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