Parks board debates sunset on sales tax

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Like a judge polling jury members after a verdict, Mike Keefe asked almost everyone at Cape Girardeau's parks and recreation advisory board meeting Monday the same question.

"Would you vote for this more if it had a sunset than if it didn't have a sunset?" asked Keefe, the board's chairman.

The sunset in question is a limit on a half-cent tax proposal originally aimed at raising $32 million for parks and recreation improvements as well as putting close to $6 million into the city's coffers for the storm-water system.

Although almost everyone who answered Keefe said that while an open-ended tax is better, in the end, a 10-year limit on part of the tax -- three-eighths of a cent -- for capital improvement funding, was acceptable. The remaining one-eighth cent, an estimated $1 million, would be used for operation expenses.

Many of the board members seemed to agree with Scott Blank's assessment that while a tax with a sunset date might be more popular with voters, it would only delay some problems.

"My own personal opinion is if we sunset, I think it's financial suicide," Blank said. "I think that we cut our throats; in 10 to 15 years we'll be coming back with the same issues that we've got today and that is maintenance."

Danny Essner said splitting the tax between capital and operating funds might win more votes.

"If we've done a good job of spending the money that we were getting on the front end and we gain the confidence of the voters then I think we'd have a very high probability of getting the sales tax extended," Essner said.

The city council had rebuffed the board's original tax proposal because it had no end point. The last three tax issues approved by Cape Girardeau voters each included limits.

Board members face tough choices. Meetings during July and this month have drawn residents bent on protecting a special interest or sport. Each said they are willing to campaign for the tax.

Jeff Brune appealed to the board to help young football players by installing a field at Shawnee Sports Complex.

"Practice starts tomorrow. Osage has got great green space out there, but in fall it turns into a swamp," he said. Brune later agreed to circulate a petition among parents to support the tax drive.

John Hedrick, Jack McDonald and Danny Campbell, all Cape Girardeau girls' softball coaches, said they would find ways to help, too. This year there are 35 teams, for girls ages 5 to 17, an average 14 players per team. The league played at Arena Park and hosted tournaments, Hedrick said.

"We're here to help and do our part," Hedrick told the board. But, as a city employee, he refused to weigh in on the sunset question.

McDonald, a retiree, wasn't shy about it.

"I would vote for it either way, but I believe there are some people that will vote for it more if it does have the sunset," he said.

"If we get something it's better than nothing," he said. The original $34 million proposal, already cut by more than $4 million in previous meetings, will be reduced to $20 million -- the estimated cash potentially available if the tax is approved, after sending $3 million to the city's public works department for storm-water system funding.

Robert Harris, who joined the board March 5, has been virtually silent at most meetings. At Monday's meeting he asked the board and Muser to consider adding a south-side community center to the list of projects, possibly on a 10-acre plot of city land near the Shawnee Sports Complex Park.

"The south side has a lot of good kids. They need someplace to go, something to do," said Harris, a school bus driver who lives on the city's south side. Keefe agreed. A community center is among the recommendations in the city's draft comprehensive plan.

"If something's going in, something's going to have to come out," said Dan Muser, parks and recreation director.

He and his staff have been charged with creating a short list of priorities for the board's next meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 10, tentatively at city hall.

For Muser, $20 million will be better than nothing.

"If we could get that," he said, "we could do a lot."

335-6611, extension 127

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