Officials rethinking timing of tax issue




As the clock winds down toward an end-of-the-month deadline to schedule a March special election, some Finney County commissioners are wondering whether to push an election back until next fall.

Commissioner Roman Halbur said it might be better to wait until a regularly scheduled election in August or November to put a sales tax issue on the ballot, instead of trying to pass it at a typically low turnout special election.

"I just don't think we're going to get much of a turnout. And when we have to extend the length of (the sales tax) from four years to nine years because we didn't get financial support from the city, I think all that will turn out for this special election are people who are against it," Halbur said.

The county is seeking 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. The next regular county commission meeting is Dec. 16.

Including bonding costs, the project was estimated to cost about $7.3 million and be paid off in about four-and-a-half years if Garden City had agreed to add its share of the LEC tax toward the project. Without the city's financial support, the project could cost about $8 million and take nine years for the bond to be paid off if the county finances it alone.

Garden City pledged to 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, assuming voters approve, would go toward stabilizing the city's property tax levy.

The city commission voted a few weeks ago to help educate voters about the proposed sales tax extension but declined to participate financially in the county's project.

Due to the city's decision, Halbur believes the March special election has little chance to succeed.

"At special elections, the turnout is so bad. Most of the people not opposed to it probably wouldn't go, and the ones who are opposed to it would go," he said. "I just don't think we have much of a chance of passing it at a special election, not where it's going to have to be for nine years without the support of the city."

Other commissioners said they hadn't made up their minds, but said Halbur's suggestion may have merit.

"I'm not ready to take that step yet, but I don't disagree completely with what Roman's saying," Commissioner Cliff Mayo said. "I'm not really ready to take a stand on it yet."

Mayo still is surprised about the city commission's decision to not at least offer a percentage of the city's share of the LEC tax toward the project. With no financial support from the city, Mayo appears to be leaning toward waiting until fall to put a sales tax issue on the ballot.

"If they aren't going to cooperate in any way with us, I think we might as well put it off until we have an election with enough people in it that's going to vote," Mayo said. "I think Roman's right that the only ones that are going to come out (in March) are those who are against it. I'm sure not in favor of spending $10,000 to $12,000 ... for one of these special elections."

Commissioner Dave Jones said with the holidays at the end of the month, the commission is running out of available days, other than the Dec. 16 meeting, to get a sales tax ballot resolution finalized.

"If it ends up going to the voters, it may have to be an issue that stands on its own, not an extension. March may very well be impractical," he said.

Jones also has started questioning the escalating cost estimates. Initially, the project started off estimated at $2 million to $3 million, but each time it came back to the commission the estimated price tag grew and now it's at $8 million.

Jones said he's not necessarily having second thoughts about the March special election, but the project needs to be discussed in more detail before it can move forward.

"My concern is how every time I read about it, another million seems to be added to it. That needs to be pared back. We need to have that discussion," he said.

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