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Ending Clark tax is debated

Additional sales tax could be extended or put to a vote.Loss of money would be ‘catastrophic’ to county budget, leaders say.

Clark County staff members say eliminating a half-percent sales tax would be “catastrophic” for both basic services and public safety, while one resident again expressed his belief the temporary tax should be put on the ballot in November.

The Board of Clark County Commissioners held an hour-long public hearing on Tuesday morning to discuss the continuation of a half-percent sales tax.

County administrator Nathan Kennedy recommends continuing the sales tax for 10 years to allow the county time to offset debt created by planned capital projects. He also recommended against placing the issue on the ballot because the county would lose $2.4 million, even if it passed, because of a delay in collection.

If the sales tax is not extended, the county will lose $7.2 million, or 20 percent, of its approximately $36 million annual general fund budget.

On Tuesday, Kennedy presented scenarios for different cuts to the general fund budget based on implementing just a quarter-percent sales tax continuation or no increase, including scenarios with increases to healthcare costs for employees.

Some areas, like courts, cannot be cut based on mandates of operation. Kennedy said increasing healthcare costs would lead to some savings, but “the loss of the quarter-percent sales tax far exceeds” those savings.

Kennedy said a half-percent cut would be “catastrophic,” especially considering the county will also have to pay unemployment costs. Kennedy estimated as many as 123 employees could be laid off if the half-percent sales tax is cut entirely, mostly from the sheriff’s office, and would affect the ability to patrol streets and run the jail.

Kennedy believes any decision to cut the sales tax altogether would be “incredibly foolish.” He believes if the sales tax is eliminated and residents ask to bring it back, the damage will already have been done.

“The damage is hard to repair,” Kennedy said.

Springfield resident Robert Riley spoke for the second straight week about his desire to see the sales tax put before the voters.

Riley said the temporary tax “has suddenly become a permanent tax in sheep’s clothing” because there is no limit to the number of times or the number of years the commissioners can extend the tax.

It’s only fair to put the vote before voters, not a minority of three county commissioners.

“I understand what (eliminating the tax) will do, but you’re not giving the people the right to choose,” Riley said.

The total sales tax paid in Clark County stands at 7 percent, including the temporary half-percent commissioners extended in February 2011 for 30 months. Five-and-a-half percent of the money goes to the state, while the rest goes to the county.

One percent of the county’s portion of the sales tax is permanent. The other half-percent tax is set to expire on Dec. 31.

If the sales tax is extended, Kennedy said basic services can be maintained. Kennedy said the county needs approximately four-tenths of a percent, but the state requires sales tax to be implemented in half-percent increments.

Sheriff Gene Kelly reiterated the importance of funding for safety services in the county. He called the half-percent sales tax “the lifeblood of safety and security in Clark County.”

He said deputies have a responsibility to answer calls and are already low on numbers. Kelly said one deputy will patrol as many as 100 square miles many nights — and it could get worse with less funding.

“It’s going to be catastrophic to this community,” Kelly said.

Horton Hobbs, the vice president of economic development for the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Community Improvement Corporation, said the commission’s support has led to growth and expansion of local companies and the attraction of a few others. The efforts have led to $250 million worth of investment, 3,800 new jobs and the retention of 4,000 other jobs since 2008.

“While economic development is a portion of what’s supported by the sales tax, it’s a critically important aspect of our community and its development,” Hobbs said.

Commissioner Hartley asked Hobbs how much taxpayer money the CIC was going to need over the next few years.

Consistent support is what’s necessary, Hobbs said. The CIC has received about $220,000 per year from the county, but also leveraged public funds to increased donations from the private sector.

“(Economic development) cannot be a government function completely,” Hobbs said. “It must require a public/private partnership.”

Chris Simpson, district administrator for the Clark County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the loss of funds would hurt their ability to leverage money from both the state and federal government.

Commissioners will hold their next meeting at 6 p.m. on Aug. 20 to allow more residents to speak on the issue. They’re expected to vote on the issue in October.

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