City supports tax, but keeping its share

11/20/2013

Commission opting to use revenue for stabilizing mill levy.

Commission opting to use revenue for stabilizing mill levy.

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram,.com

Garden City will support Finney County's efforts to ask voters for a sales tax extension to fund a judicial administrative building, but the city's share of the tax would go toward stabilizing the city's property tax levy.

"I agree the city should support this, and the facility is probably needed," City Commissioner Melvin Dale said. "But I also feel the city has its own needs. We may not be able to do a lot of things with this money, but we can certainly probably use it to keep our mill levy down."

Two weeks ago, the county formally requested a partnership with the city on the proposed March special sales tax election.

The county is seeking an extension of a quarter-cent sales tax to finance a 25,000-square-foot building that would house court services, youth services and community corrections on county-owned property adjacent to the juvenile detention facility.

Currently, the sales tax is being used to pay for cost of improvements made in the past to the Law Enforcement Center. Bonds for that project are anticipated to be paid off in July 2014, three years earlier than expected.

To hold a special election in March asking voters for a sales tax extension, the county needs to approve a resolution by the end of December and needed to know what level of support, financial or otherwise, to expect from the city.

The city commission voted 4-1 to support the county by educating the public about the benefits of extending the tax, but to keep the city's share for its own purposes. Mayor Dan Fankhauser voted no.

"We're not getting this money now, basically. This money is going to the LEC," Fankhauser said before the vote. "So it's not in our budget. I'm sure we can use it. I think we need to support this. I'd like to see it paid off — the sooner the better."

County Commissioner Larry Jones said the project is good for the community because it will get services in one spot. But it needs support.

Including bonding costs, the project is estimated to cost about $7.3 million and could be paid off in four to four and a half years if the city agreed to add its share of the sales tax extension with the county's share. However, the project may cost about $8 million and take nine years for the bond to be paid off if the county finances it alone.

"If we're going to get this passed by the voters, we need to be all in, all the entities. We can get it paid off in four years, and then we can go on to other projects," Jones said. "With the growth of retail business in this area, I think it's a no-brainer. A lot of the sales tax is going to be paid by people outside of the county."

After the vote, Randy Partington, county administrator, said the city made the decision that was best for the city, and that the county still values its relationship with the city.

"They have to look out for Garden City. I wish they would have given a little bit but I understand. We're happy that they will go out and help us explain to voters how their portion of the money will be spent on property tax stabilization, so citizens do have an understanding of where the money would be spent," Partington said.

County commissioner Dave Jones had a similar reaction.

"I can understand their position, and I respect it. However, I probably have a bit different idea of where that revenue would go, so I'm a bit disappointed. But again, I understand and respect their decision," he said.

At the end of the meeting, during the period reserved for commission comments, Commissioner Chris Law said while the county is disappointed, the city's decision could be just as beneficial to both the city and county in the end.

Law said city residents will be contributing to the project through the part of their tax that goes to the county, and city residents also will receive more property tax relief.

"I think it makes the whole thing easier to accept. I think there's some potential there," he said.

Law said he's ready to "go full bore" in support of the sales tax extension and wants to see it pass.

"I think we all agree the project's necessary. It's a good use of the sales tax," he said.

The next step for the county will be to consult with its bond counsel and get a resolution prepared. Partington isn't sure if it will be ready for the county commission's review on Dec. 2 or Dec. 16, but he said the county will begin an education process about the proposal starting in January, likely involving a county town hall and meeting with civic clubs in the weeks leading up to the March election.

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