After months of testimony, lobbying and political plays in Topeka, legislation that would retroactively authorize a Finney County sales tax increase that has been in effect for over a year was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Laura Kelly.
The approval puts to rest concerns and uncertainties surrounding the fate of the increase, which is expected to collect about $2.15 annually for four large city and county projects, including new exhibits and facility improvements at Lee Richardson Zoo, the reconstruction of Jennie Barker Road, a new indoor shooting range and a third Garden City fire station.
With the issue resolved, city and county staff and commissioners can “breathe a sigh of relief,” said Finney County Commission Chair Bill Clifford. Since a bill seeking approval was introduced in the Kansas Legislature in January, city and county staff, commissioners and other local officials have been presenting the case for approval before lawmakers and collaborators with lobbyists and southwest Kansas representatives.
“We definitely appreciate all the work of the local delegation,” said Finney County Administrator Randy Partington.
The .3-cent, 15-year sales tax increase was approved by Finney County voters in November 2017 and took effect in April 2018. Since then, it has brought the county and Garden City more than $1.9 million, more than $358,000 of which has already been spent on the planning and design phases of the zoo and Jennie Barker Road projects.
It was not until after the increase had been in effect for several months that local officials realized something was wrong. City and county staff, commissioners and legal counsel, the Garden City bond counsel and the Kansas Department of Revenue all overlooked that the county needed state authorization before placing a sales-tax increase of certain parameters on a local ballot.
The .3-cent increase fell within those parameters, and that authorization had not been sought or granted.
While there are several other cases of counties seeking retroactive authorization after holding a vote, there was little precedent of a county seeking approval for a sales tax they had already begun to collect. The situation bore questions about what would happen to the increase and the funds it generated should the authorization be denied, as well as the impact a denial would have on the four local projects.
City Manager Matt Allen has said previously if the legislation was denied and the sales tax increase halted, the four sales projects could be delayed or funded by alternative methods, both of which would likely increase project costs.
“The projects weren’t slowed by the events of this legislative session. Had the issue not been resolved this session, the city and county commissions would have been faced with some difficult decisions,” Allen said in an email Monday.
A bill to grant several counties, including Finney County, the retroactive authorization passed the state House and Senate earlier this year, eventually separating Finney County into a separate bill because of its differing circumstances. A conference committee of Senate and House lawmakers later bundled Finney County with the other counties once again.
Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, and Sen. John Doll, I-Garden City, spoke candidly Saturday about the Republican legislators using the bill as leverage to push them to support other policies on the floor, an “arm-twisting” move Wheeler called "childish." Regardless, it worked: both Wheeler and Doll made votes they did not want to make in order to ensure the sales tax approval was passed.
The final legislation, as approved by Kelly and the congressional conference committee, retroactively approved sales tax election results in Dickinson, Jackson, Russell, Thomas, Wabaunsee and Finney counties, as well as added safeguards in sales tax policy to prevent other counties from making similar oversights.
Since the safeguards only apply to sales taxes of certain parameters, like the .3-cent increase, Partington said the new rules would not always apply to county tax measures, such as a local building, road and maintenance (BRMP) sales-tax renewal expected to show up on ballots this November.
Despite the politics, Wheeler and Doll said the final bill was a good one and they are pleased that it passed.
“It’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,” Wheeler said. “The projects that (the sales tax increase) funds are so important to our community.”
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