Shawnee voters to decide sales tax increase for streets

07/29/2014 12:29 PM

07/29/2014 12:29 PM

Shawnee voters will decide on Nov. 4 whether to approve a 10-year, 3/8-cent citywide sales tax to fund street maintenance and improvements, thanks to the Shawnee City Council’s Monday night vote to place the measure on the general-election ballot.

If approved, the sales tax would generate an estimated $3.75 million a year for maintenance of Shawnee’s streets and would enable some curb and sidewalk replacements and additions.

Maintenance of the city’s 780 lane miles of streets costs almost $7 million a year. The city’s budget currently provides slightly more than $4 million for street maintenance. Current funding enables the city to resurface nearly 190 lane miles of streets in the next 10 years, according to city staff estimates.

In the city’s first citizen survey, conducted in 2012, 67 percent of respondents cited street maintenance as their top priority, city spokesman Dan Ferguson said.

The council voted 6-2 on Monday to put the sales-tax question before voters. Ward I Councilman Dan Pflumm and Ward II Councilman Mike Kemmling cast the dissenting votes.

Ward II Councilman Neal Sawyer said the city wouldn’t be able to adequately care for its streets without a specific plan.

“I’ve been (a Shawnee councilman) for 12 years,” Sawyer said. “I’ve heard how we’re going to improve the older neighborhoods, but we never have the money. And it’s true: We don’t. Until some council decides to develop a plan that has some meat in it, (that specifies) what this portion of the dollars collected will be used for, we never will have the money. We might have it for one year, but then it seems to fall off the radar screen.”

Kemmling said that, since early this year, the council had discussed alternatives to decrease the shortfall in street-maintenance funds.

“My opinion is there is money there,” he said. “It’s not all or nothing. If we can’t fund (the entire shortfall), we shouldn’t give up. If we can knock half of this (shortfall) off with an impact fee, then we’re not asking the voters for (a 3/8-cent sales tax) anymore.

“I don’t mind sending a sales tax to the people if I can look them in the eyes and say ‘Listen, we can’t cut anywhere else; this is the best we can do,’” Kemmling said. “And I don’t think this is the best we can do.”

Shawnee resident Ray Erlichman agreed. Erlichman spoke during the public comment period and referred to city documents he’d obtained through an open-records request that showed excise-tax abatements totaled $1.2 million as of June 27.

He called excise-tax abatement a “sacred cow” of an economic-development tool and asked whether properly maintained streets didn’t also encourage economic development.

“Why can’t that amount be put back in for roads?” he said.

Erlichman also mentioned that the city’s 2014 budget projects a balance of nearly $3.3 million in the economic development fund.

Ward III Councilman Jeff Vaught responded to Erlichman’s comments by saying that the abatements had yielded no new roads and that, as such, “collecting the excise tax is a punitive tax, in my opinion.”

The majority of the $1.2 million in abatements, Vaught said, was for an industrial park on 43rd Street, which has a 180,000-square-foot building. The developer is considering adding buildings that would contain more than 300,000 square feet. Along with other developments in the industrial park, the project has “an abundance of jobs,” he said.

Former Shawnee Councilman David Morris also supports the 3/8-cent sales tax, but during the public-comment period he showed photos of some Shawnee streets with mill-and-overlay resurfacing completed less than three months earlier. The photos showed street surfaces marred by cracks and crumbling in places.

“I’m concerned that the taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth with the resurfacing dollars we’re spending now,” Morris said. “Shawnee has a poor history of managing city construction projects. The city staff needs to do a better job overseeing the work contractors are doing.”

The city’s street-maintenance funding shortfall occurred in the first place because of decreased state funding and lower revenue from city sales and property taxes, Morris said.

Mayor Jeff Meyers said the tax increase wouldn’t solve the whole problem but would constitute a good start.

“I don’t want the public to believe that this is going to solve road maintenance problems, but it is a reasonable plan and addresses needs,” Meyers said. “If we don’t start somewhere, it’s never going to take place at all.”

The council on Monday also unanimously approved an $88.8 million 2015 city budget, up 3.7 percent from the current $85.6 million budget. And it rejected a proposal, with a 4-4 vote, to add language to the “parks-and-pipes” ordinance that would’ve enabled using money for maintaining parks, instead of restricting it to improving existing parks and buying land for new ones, which voters approved starting 15 years ago.

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