Tuesday, July 29, 2008

1/8-cent Transportation Sales Tax Renewal

It's the voters' decision

As a service to readers here, I posted the column I wrote for the Community Free Press on the 1/8-cent transportation sales tax after the City Council voted to bring the issue back before the voters on May 5, 2008. The ballot question will appear before voters on the August 5, ballot:

"Shall the City of Springfield, Missouri, continue a sales tax of one-eighth of one percent for transportation purposes to fund high priority transportation improvements which include the following: Upgrading US Route 65 to a six lane facility from Battlefield Road to Chestnut Expressway; interchange improvements at James River Freeway (JRF) and National Avenue, JRF and Campbell Avenue (Phase I) and I-44 and Kansas Expressway; Intermodal Connectivity investments to enhance mobility of alternative modes of transportation (Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Transit); intersection improvement at Kearney Street and National Avenue; Turn Lane Safety and Capacity Projects; Bridge and Pavement Preservation Projects; Intelligent Transportation System Projects; and other shared funding projects with County, State, Federal, and Developers to advance high-priority transportation projects with County, State, Federal, and Developers to advance high-priority transportation projects; and including the repayment of bonds which may be used to pay for the improvements, with the tax to sunset in four years?

As a further service to readers, I am going to re-post my CFP column, the correction that followed the column in the Community Free Press' next issue (the issue of June 4) and offer some personal commentary following it:

1/8-Cent Transportation Sales Tax

City Council passed Council Bill 2008-116 on May 5. The purpose of the special ordinance was to allow voters to decide whether to continue the 1/8-cent transportation sales tax 4 more years, from 2009-2012.

The current tax is set to elapse in August, 2009. Councilman Gary Deaver was interested in the process of choosing the projects funded by the transportation tax.

“We work in partnership with MoDOT, Greene County, and the city and really look at where we can get the most value for the transportation dollars that we have,” Director of Public Works Marc Thornsberry answered.

Even though some believe there is subjective language in the ballot, voters have approved the transportation tax three times, beginning in 1996.

The language people have questioned includes unidentified “high priority transportation improvements,” and “other shared funding projects.

”Parking improvements for economic development priorities showed up on the 2000 ballot and street and parking were included as high priority transportation investments in 2004.

This year’s ballot language does not specify parking, but includes “other shared funding projects with county, state, federal, and developers to advance high-priority transportation projects,” which are identified in the bill as, “related to economic development and quality of life enhancements.”

Springfield’s Director of Public Information, Louise Whall, offered insight regarding the general language of the bill and ballot.

“We can’t predict with certainty whether any new opportunities or challenges will present themselves over the four-year period, i.e., a developer proposes a major retail center that needs additional infrastructure and asks for public-private cost-share or MoDOT‘s schedule changes and a project develops that could be a cost-share,” she said.

The transportation tax was used, in part, to fund the College Station and Heer’s Car Parks. According to Whall,the combined amount used from the transportation tax to build the parking garages was $2,836,950.

Community Free Press correction:

"The city budget story (it was actually my CouncilNotes column) in the May 21 issue stated that Springfield's 1/8-cent tax would elapse in August. According to Louise Whall, director of public information for Springfield, "If voters renew it, the new 1/8-cent would start on April 1, 2009. If it is not renewed, it would expire on March 31, 2009. And it remains 1/8 cent during that whole period, so there's no double taxation in the overlap. The ballot issues are put on the ballot well before the effective date to allow the time for the state certification of the results."

I had written that the tax would elapse in August, 2009. That was incorrect and so it was corrected.

I also received the further information about the tax that "the City used $645,000 of 1/8-cent money toward design costs as a cost-share with MoDOT, but no 1/8-cent money for construction," on 266, or Airport Blvd., from Public Information Director Louise Whall.

The use of the tax for the parking garages and Airport Blvd., were approved as uses under the broad (and some say, subjective) language of the previous bills for earlier passage of the tax.

Now, for my personal comments, which, it should be noted are my comments and not affiliated in any way with CFP's stance on the issue, which I do not know and have not discussed with anyone there beyond relaying my reasons for feeling it was important to note the broad, and in my opinion (and others), subjective language of the accompanying documents to the bill. That reason was that voters should have a more encompassing understanding of what they would be supporting if they vote in favor of renewing the tax.

Beyond the projects listed on the ballot as "included" on the list of projects the city plans to undertake, if the tax is renewed, voters are also voting to support administrative opinion regarding what are priority projects for Springfield, and, it should be noted the administrative staff would, likely, tell voters they based those previous decisions, in turn, on past, citizen input.

Previous decisions have included the administrative decision to use $2,836,950 to build parking garages and $645,000 toward design costs for Airport Blvd., as a cost share with MoDOT.

I don't have a personal problem with voters approving such uses of the 1/8-cent transportation sales tax revenue, so long as they understand, completely, the possible uses and how those uses are determined as priority projects for the voters.

Voters will have to weigh whether the projects they want to see implemented are being fairly determined, administratively, by city staff and whether the projects included in the ballot are important enough to outweigh any misgivings one might have about giving city staff license to administratively determine priority cost share projects with private developers and other government entities who are also "leveraging" tax payers' dollars to pay the costs of those projects.

Whatever voters decide, it's certain, they'll pay for it.


Stu Solomon said...

I'm not the publisher, but as a member of the editorial staff I can assure you CFP has no "stance" on the issue. The publication does not publish any editorials that are to be considered the voice of the paper itself. All articles and editorials are by-lined.

That being said, I'd like to address some of what Jackie has published in this post.

The "subjective language" you refer to is common and practical. We have witnessed the problems with wording bond issues and tax levies too specifically with the Park Board being forced to make the pool closings. Because the parks tax issue was so specifically worded, the board was prevented from using any of the revenue to keep older pools and other park facilities open more than 4 days a week.

I'm not saying there weren't other options available to the city, but the Park Board itself could not redirect money to older facilities because the wording of the tax issue was specific in excluding older facilities from receiving funding from the new tax.

"Subjective language" as you refer to it is practical and common sense to give the city options in unforeen situations and circumstances. If you or anyone else can read the future, or better yet, if you want the city council to have the right to pass "emergency bills" like the Opus/BKD fiasco, you can support the exclusion of "subjective language" in your tax proposals and bond issues.

Personally, I believe such language to be a pragmatic and reasonable approach to the reality of the ever-changing priorities forced upon government by new circumstances and situations in the local government landscape.

Jackie Melton said...

This is a good discussion to have and I'm glad you offered a different perspective on it, Stu.

I have a response to one of your comments regarding "subjective" language. You wrote:

"We have witnessed the problems with wording bond issues and tax levies too specifically with the Park Board being forced to make the pool closings. Because the parks tax issue was so specifically worded, the board was prevented from using any of the revenue to keep older pools and other park facilities open more than 4 days a week."


That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that the Parks sales tax could have also specified that the park sales tax could be used, specifically, to assist with maintenance and up keep cost of city parks already in existance before the parks tax came into existance.

There are ways the tax could have included those facilities and parks in existence prior to the implementation of the 1/4 cent park sales tax as beneficiaries of the revenue.

Since it is a county-wide tax, I suppose, it would have to be included in the bill or ordinance that participating cities could have license to use some of the parks tax for exisiting parks and facilities if there was a surplus of funds available from previously reserved 1/8 cent portions of the tax, currently earmarked for maintenence of those parks and facilities built WITH the money from the tax.

Point being: the taxes can be specified to include whatever the writer of any given bill or ordinance wants to include and can be as specific or non-specific as is directed by that writer.

In the case of the 1/8-cent tax, I, personally, would have preferred to have seen language that would specify that in the case of projects arising which were not specified on the day voters approved specific projects for the tax, that they SHALL be brought before council for approval so that citizens would ALSO have some input into non-specified projects as they come up.

It's just my personal opinion but I'd like to see voters, through their council members, have more say in decisions of how their tax money is to be spent on such projects which have not been specified. That, certainly, COULD be accomplished during the writing process of a bill or ordinance IF the writers CHOSE to write it that way.

I'd like to see some changes made to give voters more of an opportunity to weigh in on these NEWLY developed projects as they arise.

I'm not suggesting anyone vote either for or against the ballot measure as presented, I am just seeking to make sure voters are fully aware of information that goes beyond what they will read in the ballot language at the polls. I, personally, feel that the more citizens know and understand an issue, the better their decisions will be regarding that issue.

I'm glad my posting assisted in an exchange of thought and ideas on the subject. :)

Thanks for sharing a different perspective.

Stu Solomon said...

I concur, Jackie. In most cases, specific wording to cover contingencies CAN exist. Unfortunately, the short-sighted perspectives of the people writing the bill prohibits this preferable action.

See, Jackie? People from different sides of the street can still use the cross-walk to shake hands and settle things amicably.

Good post, by the way. Think I forgot to mention that in my initial response. I'd also like to thank you for not doing a knee-jerk because I used the word "you" in a figurative and not a literal sense. I know you get that a lot and I wouldn't want you to think I was doing it, too.

Jackie Melton said...

Well, Stu, I'm not sure what might have given you the impression that I didn't think people from different sides of the aisle could settle things amicably. I've felt that way for a very long time and, in fact, trust that they or "we" can.

I enjoy very much hearing from people from any side of the aisle or squarely in the middle, whether in agreement with my views or not, here at JackeHammer. I find I often learn a lot and consider things that I hadn't thought of before, that can only be good for a person's understanding of any issue.

I try my dangedness to take people as individuals having individual thoughts and try very hard not to pre-judge anyone.

Of course, I'll admit I'm human and I don't always live up to my standards but it isn't because I don't try. They ARE self-imposed, after all.

Glad you visit, glad you leave comments.

Jackie Melton said...

Oh, thanks for the compliment, btw. ;)

Cherie Kail said...

I have my own philosophy, but I say forget the admin! We can surely cut one job to make up for the tax...or two, or three. I mean, where do the city Council members think the money comes from?! I am not infavor of reinstating even relapsed taxes because of the unintended consequences of more taxes....I don't like the money being pilfered and if we have extra appropriated funds, we ought to be re-investing them every year, making the money profit and then returning on those profits for the citizens in the city and county! I think that if we want to better utilize tax increases, we should start with carefully eyeing what can be eliminated in local overhead...the un-necessary spending should go out the door before new funding can be ushered in. Just a thought. I could elaborate more on that, but have to prepare for the Fair Tax topic tonight at Young Conservatives and finish a chapter in Gross National Happiness. First off, I should have asked for you to get in touch with me....my job was down-sized and I forgot to forward information to my home email cheriekail@yahoo.com

Please contact me at your convenience! I'd be obliged to get together with you and discuss some hot topics in this local political scene.

Jackie Melton said...

Cherie wrote:

"I have my own philosophy"

It, also, was one worthy of consideration.


...and already in touch! ;)