Written by Joel Klaassen Tuesday, 29 March 2011 15:09
I believe everyone has the right to their own opinion, which means I do, too.
What follows here are my observations and opinions about the 1/2 percent sales tax question before the voters of Marion County April 5. I know not everyone will agree with me, but that’s OK. I don’t take it personally.
Your opinions are also welcome in the Free Press if you will submit them to us with your name and contact information.
Almost everyone, including me, agrees something needs to be done about our county jail.
What I disagree with most is how it is to be funded. The method of funding proposed is a sales tax, which is now on the ballot. This is the same concept that was defeated 3,932-1,254 in November 2008 and is the reason a jail committee of interested citizens was formed to find a more suitable way to fund a new jail.
That committee worked hard and came up with a fairer way to pay for a jail and also found an architectural company that came up with a plan that was far less costly than the pay-to-stay jail being considered back then.
When they found out the equal assessment for every taxpayer entity was found to be unlawful, the group disbanded.
I checked with Rep. Bob Brookens, and this was his answer to why the fee idea would not work.
“It is a poll tax. The assistant revisor of statutes who would be preparing such a bill said it’s a poll tax and is unconstitutional. I asked if it could be drafted around the pitfalls of a poll tax and he said ‘no.’
“A poll tax isn’t related to voting but to counting heads—taxing each person, or each parcel. That is not based on valuation of the property but just the ‘fact’ of the property (or per ownership).
“Dan (Holub) had asked at a meeting of the county commission in December about this and I’d explained the whole unconstitutionality issue to the commission at that time. He asked that I try.
“When I got here (Topeka) in early January, I did pursue it and the assistant revisor gave the above response. I then told Dan, I cannot attempt to put before this body something that I know to be unconstitutional, and the drafter cannot pursue such a thing, either.
“At the December meeting of the county commission, Dan wanted to know why I wouldn’t do their bidding; he said they had gotten help with the transfer station and the setup of the fee. I explained that was a fee for service—we use the trash transfer station for our trash, and since it’s a fee for service rendered, it could be per-household.
“I reminded him they don’t charge a parcel that has no house on it, and that’s because of the constitutionality of it—it would be a tax per-parcel and not a fee for use; and the county would have the poll tax issue again.
“Still in that December meeting, Dan wanted me to draft the law calling it a fee, not a tax, and I explained why I couldn’t—it’s not true. His response: Do it anyway.
“There’s no relation to the building of a jail and the parcels to be assessed on a per-each basis, particularly when the intent is to apply it to houses and downtown businesses, but not to farms—it’s not uniform and isn’t a fee. If it is a fee, we would be charging the ‘tenants’ (i.e., the users) of that jail, not the house owners and downtown businesses who do want to be protected.”
That is where the per parcel idea ended.
So it is now on the ballot again as a sales tax, which is still a burden to the very businesses who are responsible for bringing in most of the revenue. Plus, it puts them at a competitive disadvantage with other businesses in surrounding communities.
Junction City is the only town in our area that would have higher sales tax than Hillsboro, Florence and Peabody at 8.8 percent and Hillsboro, Florence and Peabody would be the same as Emporia, Ark City, Herington and Lindsborg, which are not shopping destinations for most of us. Marion would then follow at 8.55 percent and the rest of the Marion County communities would be at 7.8 percent.
The sales tax hurts the retail businesses, such as car dealers, who bring in the most revenue. As the laws are written for vehicles in Kansas, the local sales tax puts a 10-20 year surcharge on any vehicle a Marion County resident buys, regardless of where it is purchased, as the extra taxes based on Marion County rates are applied when the vehicle is tagged in Marion County. Those who don’t live in Marion County can avoid the tax by shopping elsewhere where the tax rate is equal to theirs.
And Marion County residents can avoid the tax by shopping for other retail goods in Newton, McPherson and Wichita. We can’t afford to put our businesses, many of whom are finding it harder and harder to stay open, at this disadvantage.
I am sure not many people know that the county’s portion of sales taxes collected in Marion County is returned to the local cities based on a formula that takes mill levies into account and returns a higher amount to those cities with the highest mill levies.
I am hearing that some people think if this sales tax doesn’t pass, the cost of building the jail will automatically go on to property tax. This is not so. Another proposal will need to be offered if it fails.
And contrary to what you may have seen on a local cable TV station, the commissioners will not be forced to remodel the old jail if the sales tax does not pass.
But voting for the tax will make it so operations and any additional costs can be put on the tax rolls, which is also part of the question. The bond is guaranteed by mill levy if the sales tax collected is not enough to pay off the bonds.
I am not against progress, but I am against measures that will harm our businesses, which is what the sales tax does. And it doesn’t spread the cost out across the county fairly. Folks who live in communities with little or no retail, and who travel to other counties to shop for most things, will not participate in paying for the jail. What is bad for our businesses, no matter where they are located, is bad for everyone who lives in our county.
Are there other ways to pay in a more fair way? What if the sales tax could be levied only against utilities and nothing else? Everyone pays utilities. Our state has been very good at exempting sales taxes and other taxes from many types of businesses in the past. Why not pursue this option?
And now is the time to review all state and federal laws that include unfunded mandates to lower levels of government. Maybe now is the time to start talking about consolidating some of the smaller-population counties that don’t have enough people to fund everything they are required to provide.
We have declining population and a difficult economy, which doesn’t indicate a good time to raise sales taxes and make the geese that lay the golden eggs less competitive and profitable.
And recruiting business to come to our county might be a tough sell when a prospect finds out we have the highest sales taxes in the region.