Thursday, January 15, 2009

City would need State Authorization Before Seeking a 2-cent Pension Sales Tax in Two Years

A couple of days ago, "KSPR News" aired a live interview with City Manager Greg Burris about the police/fire pension sales tax issue. In that interview, Burris told "KSPR's" Michelle Sherwood:

"This is a really bad time to try and pass a sales tax. The problem is, the longer we wait on this, the more difficult it becomes to really solve this issue because, it gets worse with time and so, if we wait, and the longer we wait, this becomes so big that a 1-cent sales tax won't resolve the issue and so, at that point, then what do you do? What are the odds of passing a 2-cent sales tax a couple of years from now? Probably not very good."

It troubled me to hear this response. In part, because according to the 2008 Citizen Survey, 88 percent of the respondents to that survey replied they use local T.V. news to get information about the Springfield City government. This places a great responsibility on the shoulders of our local T.V. news channels, which do not really broadcast in-depth coverage of important issues.

In the Citizen Survey, the daily newspaper followed in second place with 68 percent of respondents claiming to use the daily newspaper to get their information about the Springfield City government, a 20 percent lower number than those who use local T.V. news. Internet sites, other than the City's own sites, were not surveyed. Meaning, blogs were not considered. Also not considered in the survey, was Springfield's community newspaper, the Community Free Press, since it is not a "daily" newspaper. Radio, however, was included in the survey. Radio was in the number three spot at 63 percent, rating only 5 percent less use than the daily newspaper.

Here's the impression people, 88 percent (if we believe the Citizen Survey was an accurate sample of the whole of Springfield's citizenry) might have been left with after listening to Mr. Burris' interview with Michelle Sherwood of "KSPR." If you don't pass a 1-cent pension sales tax in February, the City may be asking you for a 2-cent pension sales tax in a couple of years.

Does the City have the authority to seek approval from the City Council to place a 2-cent pension sales tax initiative on the ballot in two years? No. Not under current State guidelines detailing what actions a municipality may take to address a pension plan with a funded ratio less than 60 percent.

Some time ago, I sought and received a link* to an amendment to Senate Bill No. 406, Page 2, Section 87.006, which inserted specifications regarding what actions municipalities may take in order to address pension funding problems. This information was received from a State Representative who was active in the passage of the amendment so, I am trusting it is the most current State legislation on the topic. I am confident in my source but, if readers have questions about its accuracy, feel free to contact the City's law department for verification. The City of Springfield and any other municipality in Missouri has clear guidelines from the State of Missouri about what they are and are not authorized to do in order to find solutions to underfunding problems within pensions and health care plans of employees in the public safety sector.

Key information from that amendment a voter might want to consider before worrying too much about Mr. Burris' statement implying if you do not pass a 1-cent sales tax in February you might be asked for double that in a couple of years:

"94.579.1. The governing body of any home rule city with more than one hundred fifty-one thousand five hundred but fewer than one hundred fifty-one thousand six hundred inhabitants is hereby authorized to impose, by order or ordinance, a sales tax on all retail sales made within the city which are subject to sales tax under chapter 144, RSMo. The tax authorized in this section shall not exceed one percent,** and shall be imposed solely for the purpose of providing revenues for the operation of public safety departments, including police and fire departments, and for pension programs, and health care for employees and pensioners of the public safety departments....The order or ordinance shall not become effective unless the governing body of the city submits to the voters residing within the city at a state general, primary, or special election a proposal to authorize the governing body of the city to impose a tax under this section."

So, under current law, the City may not ask for more than one percent (1-cent) in their request for a sales tax to fund the police/fire pension plan.

It is conceivable the City could lobby the State of Missouri to ask the sales tax percentage limit be expanded and it is possible that the City's lobbyist(s) might be successful but, under Missouri State law, at the moment, the City may not ask for a 2-cent sales tax to fund the police/fire pension plan. I wonder if I am the only one who finds it troublesome that the City Manager would imply an option the City is not currently authorized to take action upon? I wonder if Mr. Burris is aware of what the State has authorized the City to do and if he intentionally or unintentionally implied the City is authorized to ask for a higher sales tax percentage than what the State authorized for a ballot initiative?

Today, and every day this week, the Springfield News-Leader has been allowing an open platform for the City of Springfield to answer reader questions about the pension sales tax. This, too, troubles me.

I'm not the average citizen because I have a blog and have been blessed to write a column for the Community Free Press for over a year but, I'm thinking if I was an average citizen who didn't have any method to disseminate information to the public or, the same level of authorization to approach City management with questions, and I had issued a question to the daily newspaper of note, I would be looking for an unbiased answer to my question from that daily newspaper of note. If I wanted the answer from the City, no further questions asked, I could contact the public information office myself, why ask the newspaper? If readers simply want the City's response, they can contact the Public Information Office of the City themselves. I think readers want more than that, but, that's just my opinion.

Further, if citizens want a broad understanding of this issue or any other issue within the city government, I think it behooves them to avail themselves of local T.V. news, the daily newspaper of note, the radio, Springfield's community newspaper (CFP), blogs, the city's Web-sites and City officials. Local television is not and has never been known for providing in-depth coverage in 2 minute live interviews. They serve a fine purpose but, depending on them to give you understanding of an issue as complex as the police/fire pension plan or the actions the City is trying to take to remedy the underfunding within it, might not be your best bet. By citizens taking the initiative to inform themselves through a wide array of venues, they will be better prepared to make a truly informed decision on issues which will effect their every day lives.

*To read the entire amendment, click the link and scroll to page 15 of the 44 page pdf file.

** Emphasis mine.


Anonymous said...

Those questions did appear to be parroting the city's talking points.

tom said...

Could it be said that certain city employees will go into unchartered territory to convince the voters to say YES

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with the News-Leader providing the city space to answer citizens' questions? I have found that to be useful.

I mean, your blog has provided very in-depth coverage of this issue as well.

But so has the News-Leader. They just did four straight days of articles. Did you see the chart in Sunday's paper and the long story explaining how the pension pays out?

That was worth the $1.75. Beats local TV coverage.

The problem with local TV news is the reporters don't know what they're talking about.

Reporters like this Wes Johnson in the News-Leader or you have studied the issue inside and out and are now authorities on the subject.

You two probably know more about this issue than most of the city council.

Jackie Melton said...

"What's wrong with the News-Leader providing the city space to answer citizens' questions? I have found that to be useful."

I didn't want to just give you a knee jerk answer, and I think the first question should be, is the News-Leader providing that space for free or is the City paying for that space?

If the City is paying for the space, then guess who is paying for it? That would be the taxpayers of the city.

If the City is provided that space for free, as a means of educating the public, we must consider whether the city, which stands to face drastic budget cuts in fiscal 2009-10 (if the Council follows the City Manager's recommendation to pay the full actuarial contribution should the sales tax initiative fail) is more interested in educating the public or in selling the sales tax.

Since I don't know if the City is paying the News-Leader for the space or not, I can't really say too much about the implications of the newspaper providing free space to city officials/staff who clearly would like to see the tax pass so that they don't face the possibility of such severe cuts in the next fiscal budget but, I think you should also consider these factors, the City has:

> A Web site

> A blog called CityConnect, whose administrators are happy to answer your questions

> A cable television station, TV23

> Internet access to TV23, where you can view the City Manager's presentation on the sales tax at your convenience

> The ability to place inserts in the bills of City Utilities

You can find links to all of those City amenities in the link section of this blog (except the CU inserts of course, however, there is a link to CU's Web site listed).