Upcoming ballot to feature sales tax extension, city commission seats

3/23/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

In 10 days, Garden City voters will elect three city commissioners and decide whether to extend a half-cent sales tax for another 10 years. For nearly 20 years, Garden City has used the sales tax to help keep property taxes low and pay for transportation improvements. Without an extension, the city's sales tax would expire in October 2015 and the city would likely be faced with some combination of increased property taxes and large cuts in services.

All five candidates seeking election to the city commission support the sales tax ballot question, largely due to its impact on keeping the mill levy stable.

Voters authorized the tax initially in 1994 to address road repair and maintenance, then reauthorized it in 2005 for another 10 years to help reduce the city mill levy in addition to financing transportation improvements. April's election is the last time to put a reauthorization on the ballot without a special election before adopting the 2015 budget. If voters approve, the tax would be extended to 2025.

In 2013 dollars, the half-cent sales tax is expected to generate about $2.8 million, the property tax equivalent of about 17 mills. On a $150,000 home, 17 mills would represent nearly $300 additional property tax dollars if the sales tax expired.

Melvin Dale, who was appointed to the commission in January to fill an open seat, very strongly supports the sales tax reauthorization because of the impact it has on the general fund.

"That fund is used to pay for the quality of living we are enjoying in Garden City today," Dale said. "For example, it pays for the administration of the city, cemetery, capital improvement, police, fire, streets, parks and the zoo to list only a few."

Dale said there would be no easy way to replace the roughly $2.8 million the sales tax means to the general fund. It would likely mean a combination of cuts and increases in the mill levy, neither of which would be easy.

It's also important to note that about half of the sales tax collected in Garden City is paid by people from other communities who come to town to shop at local stores and eat at local restaurants, Dale said.

Candidate Janet Doll agreed, noting the revenue is used for street maintenance and improvements and also keeps property taxes lower. The half-cent sales tax is not a new tax, but a continuation of one that has been in effect for some time, she said.

Without the sales tax, some hard choices would be necessary to balance the budget. Doll said it would probably require a combination of service cuts and finding additional revenue somewhere, most likely property tax.

"That is why it is so important that the continuation of this half-cent sales tax is approved," she said.

Doll said if forced to cut services, she would try choose items that would have the least impact on the community and citizens.

"Whether or not this sales tax is continued, if elected, I would use every taxpayer's tax dollar to gain the most 'bang for the buck.'"

Chris Law, first elected in 2011, said the sales tax ought to be continued. But if it isn't, he would favor cutting the budget, targeting those cuts on non-essential services and projects.

"I haven't spent any time looking at specifics, so this is more of a general concept," he said. "Obviously, fire and police are vital services. All city services are important and we would just have to get public input about where we can accept less service."

Law suggested not filling vacant positions and trying to not reduce current staff.

Harold Starr, a candidate, said the goal of the sales tax is good, but if it went away the city should try to adjust areas of the budget to offset the difference.

"It would be nice if property tax could be stabilized but even with the half a cent sales tax many people's property's taxes have continued to increase. I feel that it is important to stabilize property taxes if the half-cent sales tax is passed," he said.

Candidate Troy Unruh said projects completed due to the sales tax have benefitted the entire city and those who come to visit or shop. One road project Unruh cited was the improvement of Mary Street from Third Street to Campus Drive.

"With the opening of the Garden City High School this corridor sees tremendous traffic most days. I remember driving on the washboard section of Mary Street and the difference repairs made once they were completed," he said.

If there were a loss of revenue, Unruh believes increasing property taxes should be the last option though he stopped short of saying it would never be an option.

"With county valuations on the rise and property owners already struggling with increased cost for basic services, raising property taxes would only add to the problem," he said.

It's difficult to say without a thorough look at the budget and consulting with department heads where to cut, Unruh said. But steps could include slowing down equipment replacement, sharing equipment and/or scaling back projects.

"It could come down to what is immediate and absolutely necessary," Unruh said.

Approval of the extension will not increase the city's share of local sales taxes. Overall, people buying goods and services within Garden City pay an 8.45 percent sales tax. The state collects 6.3 percent, Finney County and Garden City each collect 1 percent, and .15 percent is for Horse Thief Reservoir management project.

The commission consists of five members, all of whom are elected at large. Three commission seats are up for election in odd-numbered years. The candidates with the two highest vote totals are elected to four-year terms, while the third-highest vote getter is elected to a two-year term.

The Telegram is sponsoring a candidate forum at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the commission chambers at the City Administrative Center, 301 N. Eighth St.

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