Question on April ballot; parks tax would replace half-cent recreation tax

In a unanimous vote Monday night, the Rolla City Council affirmed its commitment to a quarter-cent sales tax that will raise $475,000 in 2015 for operations and $3.8 million over the next eight years for capital improvements in Rolla parks.
"We do have to take care of what we have," said Fourth Ward Councilman Louis Magdits, who early in the special workshop meeting indicated his support of an eighth cent sales tax to sustain the operations of the parks and recreation department and an eighth-cent sales tax that would "sunset" in six to eight years after raising money to pay for certain capital improvements.
The council then spent more than an hour telling about whether there should be a sunset on the capital improvements portion, whether voters should be asked what they want included on that capital improvements list and whether the two eighth-cent sales taxes should be broken down into two ballot questions or left as one.
The only firm decision made was to direct the administration to prepare an ordinance that would provide for a permanent eighth-cent tax for operations and an eighth-cent tax for capital projects that would sunset at the end of the eighth year.
City Administrator John Butz said he would have the ordinance ready for presentation to the council in November. In the meantime, Butz, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Caron and possibly others will work to "engage the community" by holding meetings in the six wards.
All 12 council members attended the workshop, which followed a meal provided to them.
Caron was the first speaker at the workshop. He reviewed a handout that showed the operational needs and the capital improvements needs, along with revenue projections.
That document noted the parks and recreation department, which includes The Centre and SplashZone, needs $450,000 per year to operate. An eighth-cent sales tax would raise $475,000.
The second eighth-cent sales tax would raise $2,375,000 over five years, $3,800,000 over eight years or $4,750,000 over 10 years.
Caron also included a list of items identified as capital maintenance priories. He divided them into four classes.
Class 1, which Caron called imperative needs, totaled $1,300,000, as did Class 2, which he described as significant needs.
Class 3, important needs, totaled $1,580,000.
Class 4, moderate needs, had total costs of $2.2 million.
The cumulative costs of classes 1 and 2 amounted to $2.6 million, and Caron, while lobbying for a 10-year sunset, acknowledged he could accomplish fulfilling those needs in eight years and get started on the class 3 needs.
"In my mind, the eighth cent is a no-brainer," Councilman Magdits said of the tax that would be used for operations. He noted that since the beginning of The Centre, there have been many changes making it impossible to operate solely on memberships and fees without a subsidy from the half-cent sales tax collected to pay off the bonds.
Among those changes, he listed these:
n The withdrawal of Phelps County Regional Medical Center from a partnership with the city in promoting health and wellness by using the center for various programs.
n Missouri S&T's construction of its own recreation center for use by students, who had been using The Centre.
n Transferring of at least $100,000 in revenue from The Centre to the city annually to pay for administrative costs.
Magdits said that while he believes an eighth cent sales tax is needed to keep The Centre/SplashZone and the parks operational, the city should not ask for too much. That is why he favored an eighth cent for capital improvements but limited to six or eight years.
"I don't want to ask for more than we need or get in the taxpayers' pockets any longer than we need," he said.
Fourth Ward Councilman Don Morris said he agreed with Magdits regarding the permanency of the operations tax and the sunsetting of the capital improvements tax.
"I think that's the way we need to go," he said.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Fran Mazanec said she has conducted an "independent survey" of Rolla voters regarding the sales tax possibility. She said everyone she quizzed indicated they would not miss the 25 cents they would be required to give to the city for every $100 expended.
When she informed her survey subjects that the sales tax would actually drop from the current half-cent to possibly a quarter-cent tax, they all said it would be no problem for them, Mazanec said.
"I think it's a PR issue," she said.
Sixth Ward Councilman Tony Bahr asked, "Why are we concerned about sunsetting the eighth cent?" He said the needs are real and continuing, and he indicated he would not want to go through this process again in six or eight years.
Magdits countered by saying he would not vote for a capital improvements tax that has no end. He said it should be no problem to ask the voters to continue it for another term after it sunsets, if the city does what it says.
Third Ward Councilwoman Sue Eudaly said, "Whatever we decide, we need to be united." She said in the last election, in which voters turned down a continuation of the recreation sales tax, the complaint from voters to her was that the council could not agree on what was needed.
Magdits acknowledged that comment was aimed at him, for he did not endorse the ballot issue last time. He stressed, though, that his lack of endorsement was not what cost the election. It was a time of anti-tax sentiment throughout the country, the recession was in full swing and the city was asking for too much on the ballot, including a senior citizen center, with no real plan on how the money collected would be spent. Those aspects were far more important than his lack of endorsement, he said.
Second Ward Councilman Steven Leonard said he, too, favored the permanent eighth-cent tax and the temporary eighth-cent tax for capital improvements.
He fretted aloud, though, about the presence of over $4 million in the depreciation fund, a reserve fund of the sales tax collected after the bonds were paid off. Leonard said voters might balk at supporting a sales tax to help pay for the operation of The Centre when there is so much money held for a rainy day.
Soon there was discussion about allowing residents to determine, even decide, which capital projects would be funded by the eighth-cent tax. Morris emphatically declared that should be the job of Caron and his staff, not the public, for the park professionals understand the needs better and more objectively.
Third Ward Councilman Kelly Long said it would be appropriate to print the plan for the public and seek input, but leave the decisions up to the professionals.