County opts to try sales tax question in March

12/17/2013

Commission seeks extension to finance building project.

Commission seeks extension to finance building project.

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Despite concerns about low turnout, the Finney County Commission decided Monday to schedule a March 4 special election that asks voters to approve a sales tax extension to pay for a building project.

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 the 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.

According to language in the resolution, the project's estimated cost is $6.625 million. Sales tax revenue would back the issuance of bonds not to exceed that amount, assuming voters approve the sales tax extension.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a resolution that authorizes the March 4 election.

Commissioner Roman Halbur reiterated a desire to postpone the issue until the already scheduled November general election due to concerns about likely low turnout for a special election, which could essentially spell doom for the issue.

"I would rather put this thing on the ballot in the fall than I would now and losing. I'm going to vote against putting it on now. If we did happen to get lucky and have it pass now, you would do it on such a small percentage that it's not a legitimate vote," Halbur said.

Halbur said he also doesn't like spending taxpayer money on a low-voter-turnout election. A special election could cost around $12,000.

Commissioner Larry Jones disagreed, saying the county needs to have the election in March, even if it has low turnout.

"It's imperative upon us to explain our position and what the needs are. Just because this thing gets voted down, we need to explain to our voters that this need is not going to go away," he said.

Commissioner Cliff Mayo said he believes Garden City should put some of its share of the sales tax, should the measure pass, toward the project. The city commission told the county last month it intended to keep the city's share of the sales tax generated by the quarter-cent to use toward property tax stabilization. The city indicated it would help educate voters about what the money would be used for, but declined to participate financially in the county's project.

If all of the sales tax revenue was used, the project could be paid off much sooner, likely in four years instead of nine.

Despite the city's vote, Mayo believes a chance still exists that the city could provide something short of the full amount of its share of the sales tax.

"We can't govern the county on what we think the city's going to do," Halbur said. "I think you're having wishful thinking that they're going to put any money into it."

"Well, it is wishful thinking, but I still wish it," Mayo said.

The county will put together an informational campaign to educate voters about the project. As with other campaigns, officials likely will speak to several groups and organizations about the issue.

Chuck Buolly, with George K. Baum & Company, the county's bonding firm, recommended commissioners attend those meetings. While they can't advocate directly for approval, a commissioner can provide information about the project and the need for the sales tax.

"You can be there to show support, answer questions. The county can't spend any money for a 'yes' vote. They can spend all the money they want to provide information," Buolly said.

In other business Monday:

* Kaleb Kentner, planning and community development director, told the commission that the owner of an event center that has been the focus of recent noise complaints from residents northeast of Garden City has canceled all activities for the rest of this month, making it difficult for his office to investigate the issue.

However, Kentner suggested it may be possible to work with the owner to schedule a day to test noise levels at the location and determine an acceptable volume.

Earlier this month, more than 30 residents asked the commission to do something about excessive noise coming from the business at night. Zoning for the business, owned by Jose Torres, was approved in 2011. At the time, Torres indicated plans to rent the building for weddings, receptions, dances or other private events where several hundred people could gather.

According to Kentner, Torres has come in to talk about the issue. Kentner told commissioners he is attempting to organize a day to have the owner bring in his disc jockeys to turn up the music inside the facility while representatives of his office, the county and the sheriff's office observe.

Kentner said the department recently ordered a decibel meter that could be used to test noise levels at various locations, both the ambient level and levels when the music is turned up, then a determination could be made about where the volume needs to be set to avoid further problems.

"That way everyone is all on the same page," Kentner said. "He doesn't want to get tickets. He wants to be in compliance. I thought the best way to do that is that we go out and visit it, drive to different locations and turn it up and down."

Commissioners supported the idea. Mayo said the county ought to make it plain to the owner that the county is not trying to shut him down.

"He spent his money, and I thought this project was a good project for Garden City, but not in the way it's turned out. I want to be sure he understands we're not just trying to shut him down. We've got to control it," he said.

Kentner said after the meeting that a specific date has not yet been identified for the effort. Currently, he is in the process of trying to organize it.

* Commissioners voted to provide $2,553 to the Kansas Natural Research Coalition as part of an ongoing, multicounty effort to prevent the listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as a threatened or endangered species, primarily due to habitat loss. The bird's range includes western Kansas and areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

The county has been working with KNRC since February and with other western Kansas counties to develop their own conservation plan for the bird. The county signed off in August on a KNRC natural resource coordination plan and Lesser Prairie Chicken conservation, management and study plan.

Each of the 32 participating counties is being asked to pay the same amount in support of the KNRC budget, which would see the project through March.

Jim Carlson, coalition executive director, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has essentially ignored the coalition's plan. As a result, the KRNC intends to file an administrative appeal in late January with the Council of Environmental Quality pointing out the USFWS has not coordinated with local government on a plan.

"It will create a very substantial issue and problem for the administration because they haven't done any of the economic studies or cultural studies that they have to do. They haven't done an environmental impact statement," Carlson said.

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